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Wong expected to take over Lifetime

The ABC executive is to replace Betty Cohen, who failed to raise the cable channel's ratings.

April 26, 2007|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Andrea Wong, one of the architects of the ABC network's ratings renaissance, today is expected to be named chief executive of Lifetime Entertainment Services with marching orders to return the beleaguered cable channel to its former glory.

Wong will replace Betty Cohen, said an executive close to the Lifetime board who asked not to be named because the announcement was not made official Wednesday. Ever since Cohen took over two years ago, the New York-based cable channel that targets women has suffered from depressed ratings and management turmoil.

By quickly announcing a replacement, Lifetime's two owners -- Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Corp. -- are seeking to bring stability to a channel that just a few years ago was No. 1 in the ratings. It is now tied for sixth place.

Wong has overseen popular ABC shows including "Dancing With the Stars," "The Bachelor" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." The 40-year-old executive, an MIT graduate with a degree in electrical engineering and an MBA from Stanford University, has long been a favorite of Robert Iger, Disney's CEO.

The swift transition is crucial because Lifetime is preparing to launch three new dramas in June and July, including its big bet, "Army Wives," which is about a group of women and a man on an Army base and stars Kim Delaney.

Wong must immediately address several brush fires, including Lifetime's withered ranks in its promotions department and the lack of a marketing director.

Cohen's resignation came just one day after she presented Lifetime's programming schedule in New York to advertisers. The event kicks off the advertising sales season, during which companies buy time on the various networks and cable channels.

Cohen declined to comment.

Disney and Hearst also declined to discuss her departure. In a joint statement, Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney-ABC Television Group, and Hearst Corp. director John Conomikes said: "We respect Betty's decision to move on at this time."

Lifetime has long been in the market for a makeover. When Cohen became CEO in April 2005, she was charged with freshening up the look of the channel and reducing the age of its audience. She retired the slogan "Television for Women" and tried to woo younger viewers without alienating loyal older viewers.

She recruited Susanne Daniels, the former programmer for the now-defunct WB network, to develop shows.

Two years ago, the cable channel was third in the ratings. It now trails Disney Channel, USA Network, TNT, Fox News Channel and TBS. Lifetime does not have a show in the cable industry's top 40 programs. Among its core audience of women ages 18 to 49, Lifetime is down 10% this season compared with the previous season.

"They were the No. 1 rated, ad-supported cable channel for some time; they had a nice niche," said Brad Adgate, research director for ad-buying firm Horizon Media Inc. in New York. "It wasn't the most highbrow programming but it worked for them, but then other people started chipping away at their audience."

Competing channels such as Oxygen, WE, ABC Family, Food Network and HGTV have made gains, said Adgate, who added, "It's a very competitive landscape."

Lifetime said this week that it would increase its programming budget this year by 31%. It declined to say how much it would spend.

People with knowledge of the situation said that Cohen, who had thrived at Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting System Inc., where she helped create the Cartoon Network, never quite fit in at Lifetime. She also was hobbled early in her tenure when EchoStar Communications Corp. dropped Lifetime from its Dish Network satellite system. The high-stakes, monthlong battle ended when Hearst agreed to let EchoStar retransmit signals from its Hearst-Argyle TV stations without payment, returning Lifetime to the system.

meg.james@latimes.com

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