There was a possiblity of alienating general audiences and scaring away advertisers, but to President-CEO Doug McCormick, the move seemed crucial.
The niche strategy eventually paid off.
15 MIL TO 67 MIL HOUSEHOLDS
From a core audience of 15 million households in 1984 and only a handful of regular advertisers, Lifetime now reaches 67.7 million households.
Despite its emphasis on women-only programming, a surprisingly high ratio -- about 25% -- of viewers are men.
Advertisers in new categories such as financial services and technology are starting to come aboard, strengthening the bottom line.
Owned by Hearst Corp. since its inception and also by Walt Disney Co. since 1995, the network's revenues have tripled in the last five years, reaching $398.1 million last year, according to researcher Paul Kagan Associates. Net advertising revenues were $303.2 million in 1997, putting Lifetime into the No. 8 in the top 56 cable TV networks, according to Kagan.
Lifetime is now preparing to reposition itself again, adding a host of new programs based on research proving its viewers want to see more original, dramatic movies and programs on beauty, diet and lifestyle.
Gone will be many older, made-for-TV movies; in their place will be more original movies, a new half-hour sitcom and a regular hour-long drama, as the network tweaks and refines its identity as a champion of women's causes and lifestyle issues.
The network has also moved into new territory such as women's sports. In 1996, Lifetime won sponsorship rights to broadcast the WNBA, which led to the development of the Lifetime Sports division in 1997. The network's coverage of women's basketball has received high ratings and network executives say there is growing interest in additional women's sports programming.
HITS THE WEB
Lifetime also recently launched a Web site, complete with a digital drama called "In the House of Dreams," featuring ongoing Internet updates of a story involving women.
"The biggest challenge is to have relevant programming," Mr. McCormick says. "When we wake up every day, that's the first thing we think about."
Media buyers say Lifetime is increasingly attractive to advertisers.
"Lifetime gives you a way to reach women that is very friendly and appropriate," says Chuck Bachrach, exec VP-director of media resources and programming, Rubin Postaer & Associates, Santa Monica, Calif.
A key selling point for Mr. Bachrach, whose agency has bought time on Lifetime for American Honda Motor Co. and Chef America, is the consistency of Lifetime's audience.
The sales team "knows its audience and their ratings deliver," he says.
fresh ad categories
The network's advertiser staples continue to be package-goods products, with Procter & Gamble Co. its No. 1 advertiser. But advertisers from new categories previously thought to be male-dominated are now starting to approach Lifetime.
"We are starting to get more insurance and computer companies," says Lynn Pickard, Lifetime's senior VP-advertising sales.
Lifetime remains one of the few media buys delivering a guaranteed audience of women.
"It's still hard to reach women in cable," says Betty Pat McCoy, VP-director of national broadcast, GSD&M, Austin, Texas. With Lifetime "we can get an upscale woman." Ms. McCoy has bought time on the network for MasterCard International, Doubletree Hotel Corp. and the Steel Alliance.
Under Mr. McCormick's leadership, Lifetime has developed an identity as a consistent supporter of women's causes. He has promoted public service announcements about women's issues and events and also spearheaded the "Take Our Daughters to Work Day" in 1993 with the Ms. Foundation.
BREAST CANCER PROGRAMS
Mr. McCormick also is responsible for Lifetime's commitment to breast cancer programs. Features, information specials and public service announcements from Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore on breast cancer awareness resulted in Lifetime's winning of the 1996 Golden Cable ACE Award.
Last year, Lifetime started the "Lifetime Women's Summit" in Washington to discuss current women's issues with women representing various industries.
The summit gives the network insight into what kinds of opportunities and problems women will face in the millennium. It will be an annual event, but plans for this summer are still in development.
"Women's rights issues are human rights issues," Mr. McCormick says. "If you're not informed, it's hard to stay relevant."
Merging research about its viewers and its expertise in creating new programming, Lifetime's latest repositioning will kick off in September backed by on-air and print ads appearing in newspapers and consumer magazines; Lifetime's estimated $12 million campaign is handled in-house.
"It's just a natural part of our evolution," Mr. McCormick says. "We are going to be far more explicit in our embracing of women."
While many details of Lifetime's revamp are still up in the air there are several certainties. For instance, Lifetime plans to spin off a Lifetime Movie Network, featuring Lifetime's original movies and other made-for-TV movies. (It had also planned a spinoff based on its Friday night "The Place" programming targeting 18-to-34-year-old viewers, but canceled for lack of space on analog cable systems.)
Lifetime has just launched a new magazine show called "New Attitudes," featuring beauty tips, fashion and health stories. Lifetime has also recently signed for syndicated reruns of "Party of Five," "Ellen," and "Chicago Hope" in the upcoming season.
The network also is in talks with Oprah Winfrey to develop another "Dinner with Oprah" special, based on the success of a similar program in February 1997 featuring author Toni Morrison.
Lifetime is hatching two original programs for the fall: a half-hour sitcom and an hour-long drama.
Lifetime "is about talent," Mr. McCormick says, "and pulling together an arresting concept and speaks in a tonality with a woman's voice."