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Lifetime seeks a lifeline

Women's cabler plans a programming switch

Lifetime chief Carole Black is out. Seven months after programming head Barbara Fisher left, the position remains unfilled.

What has to be done to breathe life into Lifetime?

These days, the network is struggling to remain atop cable’s women 18-49 rankings — a fact that has prompted ambitious plans to reverse the backward ratings slide.

Left-behind exec VP-G.M.s Lynn Picard and Rick Haskins say fresh scripted series will help bolster the primetime sked, which now runs almost entirely on movies.

Lifetime will greenlight four to six pilots next year, both half-hour comedy and dramas, making it the biggest series production slate in the history of the women’s net.

The cabler also has started to gain traction with low-budget made-fors and will continue to produce them for weekly airings.

Following a particularly rough second and third quarters, Lifetime was flat for October in women 18-49 in primetime but up 17% in women 18-34 from the previous year.

That younger set will be getting even more attention via future projects. Cabler hopes to roll out one reality show a quarter, with concepts including a pet salon show, a bridal salon series and a pair of relationship skeins.

Proven half-hours “Reba” and “Will & Grace” will join the sked next year, followed by “Frasier” in 2006.

In addition, Lifetime will spend upward of $370 million on programming, according to Kagan World.

Picard says whoever succeeds Black will arrive in the midst of a very aggressive programming expansion. Indeed, Black came to Lifetime after former programming whiz Dawn Ostroff had readied the cabler’s original powerhouse trifecta: “Any Day Now,” “Division” and “Medicine.”

Both Picard and Haskins say their development pipeline is less risk-averse than ever. By now it’s not news Lifetime was one of the unfortunate nets that passed on “Desperate Housewives” when it initially came their way. Haskins says his team is much more open to writers and producers who specialize in slightly racier fare.

“We will go there if it’s right for the story,” Haskins says. “Those shows, like ours, are ultimately about relationships. We’re really reaching out to writers, aggressively going after both big and untapped sources.”

An agent who works with the women’s channel put things more bluntly: “Lifetime is in desperate need to make its move.

“Their executives have said that women in Middle America are very happy with middle-of-the-road programming,” the agent says. “But they’ve got to be more provocative. Nothing stands out. Even their signature movies aren’t events.”

However, Starcom senior VP/director of entertainment Laura Caraccioli-Davis suggests that Lifetime may not have to play that game.

“People are pointing fingers at them because they don’t have that one show, that series that is pushed into pop culture,” she says. “But I think maybe their audience doesn’t want them to change drastically from how they are now.”

Lifetime’s bottom line hasn’t been affected either: Kagan projects it will rake in $937 million in total revenues next year, up from $858 million.

“Advertisers still love the Lifetime brand,” Caraccioli-Davis says. “It remains the best way to laser in on the female target.”

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