Ms. Black had surprised people before. In 1994, she became the first-ever female general manager of a local TV outlet when she took the post at Los Angeles' NBC station. But on that spring morning, she really raised eyebrows. After announcing she expected excellence from everyone, she laid down the gauntlet.
"We will be No. 1 here at Lifetime," she said.
No problem, thought the executives at first. No. 1 among women 18 to 49. Can do. No. 1 among soccer moms. Done. No. 1 in any female category. Sure, no problem. Back then, the female-targeted Lifetime posted strong numbers among women viewers, but was the fifth-highest rated basic cable network.
But Ms. Black wasn't talking about reaching some sort of cable glass ceiling. She meant No. 1 overall in basic cable-more total viewers than ESPN, CNN, MTV, USA, you name it.
"It never had occurred to us that we could be No. 1 until she walked in the door and presented it as a goal," said Meredith Wagner, then a Lifetime senior VP, who was among the weary that morning.
In January 2001, Ms. Black's ostensible reverie became a reality. Lifetime ascended to Nielsen's top-rated basic cable network spot in primetime. The network now wins in all categories among women and outperforms everyone from A&E to ZDTV (now TechTV) in average primetime rating with a 1.9 rating from Jan. 1 to July 22. That translates into 1.6 million households; USA Network is No. 2 with a 1.8 rating and 1.5 million households. Making the feat more impressive is Lifetime made the climb while it faced a new challenge from Oxygen Media and continued its success as Rainbow Media Holdings relaunched the Romance Classics Network as WE: Women's Entertainment.
Lifetime's ratings helped bring in an estimated $570 million in ad revenue last year, placing it fourth in cable behind Walt Disney's Co.'s ESPN and Viacom's Nickelodeon and MTV, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. But its new No. 1 position appears to be paying dividends on that front as it vaulted past MTV into third place for April 2001, the latest month available, with $62 million in sales. So far in this year's upfront, despite the staggering economy, network executives said the bulk of Lifetime's deals were done for more dollars compared to last year, though like most networks, it has had to promise lower cost-per-thousand rates.
"It's been a great marketing effort, a great viewer awareness effort, a great distribution story, a great sales story," said Andy Donchin, senior VP at Aegis Group's Carat USA, New York. "They have it together."
How did Lifetime do it? To be sure, it has some built-in advantages. Women tend to watch more TV than men. And the 17-year-old Lifetime, a 50/50 venture of Disney and Hearst Corp.-each with significant cable stakes-hasn't hurt. In terms of cable network distribution, Lifetime is in the top tier with about 80 million homes after launching with 15 million. (ESPN, CNN, MTV and USA are all in that range, too.)
But Lifetime's true strength may be that it's figured out how to be a targeted network-a strength of cable-with mass appeal. In 1994, the network took on the tagline "Television for Women." Ms. Black has turned it into a mantra. Lifetime moved up the charts not by trying to reach everyone, just by attempting to reach as much of its female target as possible. Not a bad strategy considering women make up 52% (150 million) of the U.S. population.
"Over the past two years, we've really focused on women and what's important to them," said Rick Haskins, exec VP-Lifetime brand.
Lifetime tries to offer programming that resonates with women by inspiring them with dramas about female police officers and doctors, along with documentaries, or what it calls "Intimate Portraits." And it offers at least one original made-for-TV movie a month. The July 16 offering received a 5.2 Nielsen rating (4.2 million homes), outdoing the heavily promoted "The Mists of Avalon" on AOL Time Warner's TNT that night, which received a 4.0 rating (3.2 million homes).
Besides entertaining and informing, programs also try to display an understanding of the stresses women face. TV is a passive medium and it can take the sting out of a long day. "It's like their personal decompression chamber," Mr. Haskins said.
The network also focuses on advocacy for issues such as breast cancer awareness, using October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, to direct viewers to its Web site to sign petitions and inserting the topic in scripted shows.
As Lifetime builds its audience base, the network mirrors a strategy employed by Disney's ESPN since the early 1990s: Take a TV network and expand it into a brand across many platforms. In ESPN's case, the network has tried to make itself synonymous with sports-be it news, live events or the experience. There are four domestic cable networks, a radio network, a magazine and a chain of restaurants.
Lifetime has moved to capitalize on the feeling of sorority women have for it. "They've clearly established themselves as a brand that delivers a quality product to women," said Chris Geraci, senior VP at Omnicom Group's OMD, New York.
In 1998, the network launched the Lifetime Movie Network, currently in about 17 million homes. Now, comes Lifetime Real Women next month, a digital cable channel. Lifetime recently announced plans to publish two additional books-a relationship advice book and a wedding planner, which build off TV content-under its Hyperion Lifetime imprint. Hyperion is a Disney division.
At a recent industry conference, Ms. Black hinted a Lifetime magazine is in the works, a natural with Hearst's 50% ownership. And a Lifetime radio network would also dovetail with the brand.
"Radio is a great place to reach women," Mr. Haskins said. "It's the No. 1 source of media from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for women." Lifetime has captivated cable viewers. Is Lifetime Omnimedia next?