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Lifetime frets about reaching a certain age

October 22, 2006|Choire Sicha | Special to The Times

New York — "OH, my gosh," said Geralyn Lucas. "I've become a Lifetime movie!"

Dressed in a black flapper-gone-goth dress with a pink flower tucked behind her dark hair, she addressed the nearly 200 people in the glam screening room of the new Hearst tower, just off Columbus Circle in Manhattan, on the evening of Oct. 11.

"What I'm going to say about Lifetime is going to sound like they paid me -- and they did!" Lucas told the crowd. She is a director of corporate communications for Lifetime, and found herself not long ago in the queer position of selling the rights to her memoir, "Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy," to her employer. ("There was a -- what's it called? The Chinese wall," Lucas said of the deal. "It was all kind of civil.")

Lucas is not just the subject of the channel's big October film -- it airs Monday at 9 p.m. -- nor just its employee. She may also possess the gloriously ideal pair of Lifetime eyeballs. Goodbye, dear Jaclyn Smith; the big-haired, woman-in-terror, shoulder-padded days are gone, for the most part replaced with black-clad sophisticates and the pomegranate cocktail set.

Lucas is 39; the median age of Lifetime's daytime viewer is 48, as of the 2006 third quarter. She has two young children and a job. She has a husband -- a doctor, a neat freak who likes Woody Allen and who has delightfully broad shoulders. She likes heels and black dresses and is concerned about women's health.

And so the film of her life, in addition to its central narrative about Lucas' breast cancer discovery at the age of 27 and ensuing treatment, has as its subject the seductions of an aspirational, urban, post-Carrie Bradshaw lifestyle. Lucas is a member of an awesome demographic.

Just before the premiere of Lucas' life story at Hearst, magazine women streamed out of work. Helen Gurley Brown went sedately down the escalator. Stacy Morrison, a tall blond in a pink jacket who is editor-in-chief of Redbook, talked with Lifetime Chief Executive Betty Cohen in a corner.

In a way, those two are co-workers -- Lifetime is half owned by Hearst, and half owned by Disney. Both are relatively new in their jobs -- Cohen came in a year and a half ago, Morrison a bit over two years ago. And both executives face much the same challenge.

"Anybody who works in women's media feels that they're competing for women's time," Morrison said of Redbook -- whose readers, Hearst says, have a median age of 43. She said her task was to take up a new generation of readers. But she wasn't alone. "Every brand is making this transition," she said. "Kraft is making this transition."

Lifetime is coming off a strong 2005. In the early part of 2006, however, Lifetime lost a good number of women ages 18 to 34. As the year has gone on, the number of young women watching has nearly rebounded to the network's great 2005 numbers.

Fifteen Lifetime movies aired last year; by this time, they had an average of 3.8 million viewers. This year, they're almost on track, with an average of 3.6 million.

So forget what women want -- what does Lifetime want?

Susanne Daniels, Lifetime's president of entertainment, said that she and Cohen have watched the changes at Bravo and A&E -- "From opera and ballet to 'Dog the Bounty Hunter'? I don't think we're dealing with a 180-degree change."

"I'd say the biggest difference in five years is fewer movies Monday through Friday," said Daniels.

"You try to build per evening," said Cohen. "You try to pick a night that you can win."

"Do we have a night of programming -- is it Friday night that women want to watch with their kids?" Daniels said she had speculated.

And not all of this must be original -- can't be. "We are not out of the acquisitions business," Cohen said. The network has acquired "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Medium." ("Medium" is gaining strongly with women 18 to 49; "Desperate Housewives," which began airing in August, is so far even with previous time period numbers.)

*

Series to seal the deal

MOVIES -- events, as they say -- bring in viewers. Series retain them.

"What would I like people to say?" asked Daniels . " 'My favorite show is on Lifetime -- it has the most relevant, compelling series on TV.' The average viewer you ask about Lifetime, it's our movies."

So under Cohen and Daniels, what will become of the TV movie, that old, network-derided staple?

"The two of them are reshaping the cable franchise, top to bottom, the way they're marketing films and handling the production," said Peter Guber.

Guber's Mandalay, with Stephanie Germaine, has produced four movie adaptations of Nora Roberts books for Lifetime to air over the winter. Mandalay financed the development and production; the films were licensed to Lifetime, with Sony buying the release of the boxed set.

If anything can be predicted, that project should do well. Roberts has nearly as many books in print as there are Americans.

Guber was trapped at Gatwick Airport near London; he was out selling international rights.

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