In a business culture that is famously cutthroat, Andrea Wong and her team have brought Lifetime unprecedented success by being — nice. The approach is accentuated during a recent visit to the company’s elegant Century City digs, where the vibe is warm and friendly. Could this be a typical day at the office?
“I think ‘nice’ is a very effective way to do business and always pays off in the long run,” says Wong, the network’s president and CEO. “I believe very strongly that you can be a decent human being, conduct yourself well, be respectful of others and also be highly successful. I believe that 100%.”
Such a behavioral compass does not exclude shrewd business acumen, as demonstrated by Wong’s remarkable get in bringing “Project Runway,” cable’s most-watched reality show, to Lifetime. The series arrived only after a protracted legal skirmish when NBC Universal — parent conglom of Bravo, “Runway’s” original home — cried foul.
Wong refers to the show as “the third prong we needed to round out our scripted and movies,” adding that “Runway” provided “the perfect fit for where I wanted to take this network.”
The show’s season debut drew 4.2 million viewers, the largest audience for any competition reality series in 2009 and the highest-rated premiere in Lifetime’s 25-year history.
More than just a commercial triumph, “Runway’s” performance served as a symbolic indicator that Lifetime had finally broken free from its mooring as the women-in-peril network.
“Being part of the zeitgeist like we were is both a positive and a negative,” says JoAnn Alfano, exec VP of entertainment. “Everyone knew the Lifetime name, but we had become so synonymous with victim movies that if a woman was experiencing a bad situation, people would say, ‘You sound like a Lifetime movie.’ Look, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Changing that perception will take time.”
When Wong was named to her current position in April 2007, her goal was to revamp and revitalize what was already the highest-rated women’s network, with a reach of nearly 98 million households nationwide. To do this, she brought aboard Emmy Award-winning producer Alfano (“30 Rock”) in September 2008, with producer and industry veteran Nina Lederman (“The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” “Will & Grace”), senior VP of scripted series programming and development, joining them the following month.
“Because we understand what works for Lifetime and what doesn’t, it allows for a certain shorthand of communication between us,” Lederman says.
“We want to create programs that are modern, deal with contemporary issues, and that speak to as many women as possible,” Alfano adds. “We want to entertain women, celebrate them and support them. That’s not just our work mantra, that’s our personal mission as well.”
In addition to “Runway” and its spinoff “Models of the Runway,” Lifetime now boasts a full primetime slate that includes “Army Wives,” “Drop Dead Diva,” “Rita Rocks” and “Sherri.”
As a bonus, the net earned an unprecedented five Emmy Award nominations for the Lifetime original pics “Prayers for Bobby” and “Coco Chanel.”
“We feel we are in a place of being a great triple threat,” Alfano says. “In unscripted we have the No. 1 competition reality show; in the scripted space we have ‘Army Wives’ and ‘Diva’; then additionally, we are No. 1 with women and movies. We feel we are really making signature shows that point to exactly who we are, what our viewers want to see.”
In fact, the net stands to be a quadruple threat with Lifetime Digital Media, a women’s online entertainment resource that allows for a unified branded experience intersecting all shows. More than just a “gee whiz” space for the cabler to list its schedule, there are stand-alone sites such as Roiworld.com, and DressUpChallenge.com, which are fashion games, and MothersClick.com, an online community for women. Collectively, the sites registered an all-time high 3.8 million unique visitors and 93 million page views in May.
For all that is new at Lifetime, Wong, Alfano and Lederman are equally passionate about the network’s legacy of advocacy. The net’s current campaign is built around remarkable women, while in October, every show will address breast cancer awareness in some way.
“This is a big reason why women feel so connected to the Lifetime brand,” Wong says. “It’s not just about entertainment and escape. Our viewers know that we are there for them. That’s one thing that will never change.”
IN A NUTSHELL
Job title: President-CEO, Lifetime Networks
Role models: “My parents. They taught me how to pull myself up, dust myself off and keep going.”
Career mantra: “Treat people how you would want to be treated.”
Leisure pursuits: “Spending time with my boyfriend, Andrew. Getting takeout and watching our favorite shows on TV.”
Philanthropic passions: Saban Free Clinic, the Paley Center for Media
Job title: Exec VP, Entertainment, Lifetime Networks
Role model: “My sister is absolutely my greatest inspiration and the reason I am alive today. She died at 42 of breast cancer, before early testing was the norm. Because of her I was tested early and often, and today I am a breast cancer survivor.”
Career mantra: “Trust your gut instincts and be decisive.”
Leisure pursuits: “Playing with my kids and eating sushi.”
Philanthropic passions: “I do a lot of work for a variety of breast cancer charities.”
Job title: Senior VP, scripted series programming and development, Lifetime Networks
Role model: “My mom is my hero. She instilled in me a love of language, developed my sense of humor, character and personality.”
Career mantra: “Today’s production assistant is tomorrow’s producer, which is why it’s so important to say ‘thank you’ properly.”
Leisure pursuits: “I have three kids, ages 13, 11 and 5 months. For me it’s all about the kids and the family. And I love movies. I go as often as I can.”
Philanthropic passion: The Gay and Lesbian Center — “I was on their board for six years and they remain special to me.”