JoAnn Alfano adjusts to Lifetime

Exec charged with energizing cable network

Signing on as Lifetime’s programming chief six months ago, JoAnn Alfano describes the job of orchestrating the femme-targeted network’s schedule as being like “solving a puzzle.”

Alfano, a former NBC development operative who helped launch “30 Rock” while at Broadway Video, needs to find the right pieces quickly.

Its acquisition of top reality show “Project Runway” has hit a snag, and ratings have been in decline recently, with overall viewership down 10% year to year in January and 17% in February, according to Nielsen.

Worse, the channel that bills itself as the No. 1 cable network for women has been losing female viewers of late, with women 18-49 down 12% in January and 15% in February.

Stepping in to replace the popular Susanne Daniels in early September, Alfano already faced the tough task of bolstering the original series acumen of a network very much in transition.

Now almost two years into the tenure of president and CEO Andrea Wong, Lifetime — a channel jointly owned by Disney and Hearst Corp. that was once closely associated with “Golden Girls” reruns and older-skewing TV movies — has undergone a bold transformation, its executive ranks reformed and most of its operations, save for ad sales and a few others, pulled to the West Coast to be closer to the development community.

With Daniels in charge of programming, the network had already started to ramp up development of original series, hoping to attract younger viewers and build brand identity.

And Alfano joined up in the middle of that transition.

Long-running offnet stalwarts including “Reba,” “Will & Grace” and “Frasier” were beginning to show their age. And the network needed at least one more successful original series to compliment its flagship drama, “Army Wives.” But the launch of situation comedy “Rita Rocks” and reality series “DieTribe” — both developed before she arrived — yielded little ratings traction (although both series were renewed).

Then came the real unforeseen bummer, with Lifetime’s plan to build a fashion-themed reality block around its newly poached hit “Project Runway” getting put on indefinite hold pending the resolution of a lawsuit filed by the series’ incumbent network, Bravo.

Because of this court injunction, the No. 1 rule at Lifetime is, you do not talk about “Project Runway.”

Which is fine with Alfano, who chooses to take a strategic long view.

“It’s a simple matter of ramping back up,” she says. “My goal in being here is to build more original comedies and dramas, and it takes a while to get these things on the air.”

Currently, the network is operating with only one original hit, drama “Army Wives,” which has broken ratings benchmarks for Lifetime in its first two seasons, routinely averaging more than 4 million viewers.

“Army Wives” will return to the Sunday night schedule in June and will be relied on heavily to promote the first big launch of the Alfano era, “Drop Dead Diva,” a dramedy created by Josh Berman originally for Fox that will debut on Lifetime in July.

“It’s a terrific pilot,” Alfano says. “We’re really looking forward to getting into production on that show.”

In the fall, the network will enjoy offnet reinforcements, with female-skewing hourlongs “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Medium” joining the schedule.

Further down the road, Alfano hopes to inject more comedy into the lineup.

Lifetime is developing “Alligator Point,” a Steve Stark- and Robert Peacock-produced, Kelsey Grammer-helmed ensembler that stars Cybill Shepherd. Alfano describes it as ” ‘Cheers’ in an oyster bar.”

Also in development is a family comedy starring comedian Sherri Shepherd.

These original comedy efforts will be bolstered by the $82.5 million offnet acquisition of “How I Met Your Mother,” which has been running weekly on Lifetime since January and will commence strip runs beginning in fall 2010.

“Comedies play across our schedule, morning to latenight,” Alfano says. “Sometimes, their latenight numbers can be better than our primetime numbers.”

Between now and when “Army Wives” gets back in June, Alfano believes a number of key movie and mini events should spark ratings.

Beginning March 21, the network will unspool “Northern Lights,” the first of four new Mandalay TV-produced Nora Roberts-adapted telepics, a franchise that has been a big ratings-producer for the channel in recent years both in premiere and repeats.

And set for spring is a multipart adaptation of Gigi Levangie Grazer’s “Maneater.”

Other movie events down the road include a Georgia O’Keeffe biopic starring Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons, as well as telepic “Acceptance” starring Joan Cusack.

“I’m looking at the rest of the year, and we have some really big things scheduled,” Alfano says. “It’s a very fluid schedule, and it’s not unusual to be down a little bit and come right back up.”

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