History Channel's Dubuc is frontrunner for CEO job

Cable’s leading femme-centric network is going through a mid-Lifetime crisis.

The exit of CEO Andrea Wong on Friday could signal major changes at Lifetime — which was hit last year by big ratings declines, despite the highly publicized acquisition of “Project Runway.”

As part of a channel makeover, History prexy-G.M. Nancy Dubuc is expected to be handed oversight of Lifetime Networks, possibly as soon as this week.

Dubuc has long been rumored for the job, as speculation grew that Wong would depart in the wake of A&E Television Network’s acquisition last year of Lifetime.

Long a trusted lieutenant of AETN topper Abbe Raven, Dubuc has run History since 2007.

Since then, she’s helped grow the channel, which ended 2009 with its best ratings yet — up 3% over the year before. The network’s audience has also gotten younger under her watch, thanks to shows like “Ice Road Truckers” and “Cities of the Underworld.”

The ratings growth comes as Dubuc gives History a contemporary makeover — something that critics of Lifetime say is desperately needed by that femme-centric channel.

Lifetime has struggled in recent years to figure out its place in the ever-changing cable landscape.

Until recently, Lifetime had been a perennial top 10 cable net (and was even No. 1 in the early 2000s).

Lifetime ended 2009 far out of the top 10 in primetime — down 20% among viewers and down 17% in adults 18-49 vs. 2008, despite the “Runway” acquisition.

Lifetime is having a better January in the demos, however, thanks to the successful telepic “The Pregnancy Pact” (the fourth-highest rated telepic in channel history) and the return of “Runway.”

Lifetime is now in the process of trying to once again figure out its programming mix. Cabler saw its fortunes rise under former entertainment prexy Susanne Daniels, as the hit “Army Wives” appeared to give new life to the channel.

But the channel’s female focus may be too niche in an era when channels such as TLC, A&E and Bravo have broadened out far beyond their original charters. Sensing this, Lifetime dropped its slogan “Television for Women” several years ago.

On the flip side, Lifetime isn’t niche enough to satisfy viewers looking for specialized fare in the vein of Food Network or HGTV, both of which saw strong growth in 2009.

Lifetime now faces increased competition from the likes of all of those channels — as well as younger-focused Oxygen.

And the cabler still has had difficulty finding a home-grown unscripted hit.

By bringing in Dubuc, AETN likely hopes to duplicate the kind of broad revamp that she helped fuel at A&E and History.

It’s unclear whether Dubuc would oversee both Lifetime and History as part of the shuffle. AETN declined comment on the speculation.

News of Wong’s exit comes four months after Lifetime was formally consolidated into AETN — the partnership between Disney-ABC TV Group, Hearst Corp. and NBC Universal. (Lifetime Entertainment Services had previously been a joint venture between Disney and Hearst.)

That led to heavy layoffs in Lifetime departments including legal, human resources, publicity and marketing, which was particularly hard hit.

After AETN took on oversight of the channel, Wong began reporting to Raven; before that, Wong had reported to the Lifetime operating board.

Wong had served as CEO of Lifetime Networks since 2007, when she replaced Betty Cohen. She’ll remain at the channel through April, when her three-year contract expires.

“We thank Andrea for her many contributions to Lifetime,” Raven said in a statement.

Later, in a note to Lifetime employees, she added: “Andrea has been a wonderful leader to Lifetime over the last three years and she has been enormously helpful during the merger of our two companies. I thank her for her energy, enthusiasm and creativity. Andrea has built a great team and I look forward to working with them closely.”

It’s unclear where Wong, who formerly headed ABC’s alternative department (and brought smashes like “Dancing With the Stars” to the net), might end up next.

“It has been a true honor to lead Lifetime,” Wong wrote in a letter to Lifetime staffers. “Now that my role in the acquisition of Lifetime by AETN is concluded and the integration of the organizations, including a more streamlined management structure, is nearly complete, I believe that it is the right time for me to step down as president and CEO. It is my plan to move on in the coming weeks after assisting in any way I can with the transition.”

At Lifetime, Wong helped secure the cabler’s five-year, $150 million acquisition of “Project Runway,” which finally bowed on the channel last year after a lengthy legal delay.

“Runway” was held up in court after NBC Universal cried foul over the Weinstein Co.’s actions in moving the show from Bravo to Lifetime. Lifetime was forced to delay its plans as a result.

“Runway” opened strong on Lifetime, posting the franchise’s best season launch numbers. But the show saw its ratings sink from there, dipping below its Bravo ratings (but still giving Lifetime a major time-period boost). Show recently bowed its second season on the channel.

Among Wong’s hires were former WB marketing execs Bob Bibb and Lew Goldstein, who gave Lifetime a fresh coat of paint — but were knocked by rivals for centering their campaign around a Lifetime-branded airplane.

Bibb and Goldstein remain, as do programming execs JoAnn Alfano and Nina Lederman.

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