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Retreads? Not in this Lifetime, execs hope

June 02, 2007|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Susanne Daniels had a singular goal in mind as she was developing a slate of original programs to debut on Lifetime Television this summer.

"I was looking for hit shows," Daniels, president of entertainment for Lifetime Entertainment Services, said wryly.

It may be an obvious aim, but it's an achievement that has recently eluded the women-oriented channel. Once the predominant cable network among all viewers, Lifetime lost ground in the last several years as it clung to a fare of sitcom reruns and passe women-in-peril movies while its cable competitors hit pay dirt with original series such as "Monk" and "The Closer." The network now ranks below general interest channels such as USA and TBS, even among its core 18- to 49-year-old female demographic.

"We are proactively trying to change our image," Daniels said, adding that she hopes viewers will see "that we're more contemporary, that our shows are really relevant and will resonate with their lives."

Amanda Lotz, assistant professor of communication at the University of Michigan, said Lifetime stumbled by failing to refine its identity as broadcast shows such as "Grey's Anatomy" and smaller cable networks like SOAPnet and Home & Garden Television chipped away at its female base.

"The world really changed around them," said Lotz, author of "Redesigning Women," a book that examines the recent rise of female-oriented television programming. "I don't think they have adjusted very well. The cable players that have succeeded have shows that garner a lot of attention, like TNT with 'The Closer' or the FX dramas. Lifetime has consistently turned out these bland, retread programs."

The network's original offerings last year -- including the dating agency comedy "Lovespring International" and the crime procedural "Angela's Eyes" -- largely fizzled.

So Lifetime is hoping to jettison its image as the purveyor of colorless programming this summer by launching a trio of new dramas, starting Sunday with "Army Wives."

From executive producer Mark Gordon ("Grey's Anatomy"), the series examines the lives of five military spouses at an Army base, their complicated relationships and the intricate code that governs their lives. The drama, starring Kim Delaney and Catherine Bell, will be joined on July 15 by two other new programs, "Side Order of Life" and "State of Mind," to create a Sunday night block the network dubbed "Me Time."

Lifetime has put substantial marketing muscle behind the new shows, with promotional spots on "Oprah," "Today" and the season finales of "Desperate Housewives" and "American Idol," along with a slew of ads in magazines, including Entertainment Weekly and People. The network is also working with Operation Homefront, a nonprofit that supports military families, to organize house-watching parties for the "Army Wives" premiere.

"Army Wives" has already generated substantial buzz, in large part because it deals with a subject matter rarely addressed in popular culture.

"We see a lot about the military on the news and even with shows like 'The Unit,' but we really don't see shows or movies about the home front," Gordon said. "We felt there was great potential in the setting to do it in a very real way."

Although the program addresses the personal repercussions felt by the families of those fighting in Iraq, the series is apolitical, the producer said.

"Whether you're interested in the military per se or not, you'll be interested in watching the emotional drama," he said. "It has very broad appeal. Hopefully, this will bring not only the 'Lifetime' viewers but also broaden the audience."

Like "Army Wives," the two companion series joining the Sunday schedule in July were originally developed for broadcast networks and boast notable pedigrees.

"State of Mind" stars Lili Taylor of "Six Feet Under" and indie film fame as a therapist in personal turmoil and comes from the team of Greer Shephard and Michael Robin, the executive producers of "Nip/Tuck" and "The Closer."

In "Side Order of Life," Marisa Coughlan ("Boston Legal") plays Jenny McIntyre, a magazine photographer who rethinks her approach to life, including her relationship with her fiance (Jason Priestley), after learning that her best friend has cancer. In a style of magical realism reminiscent of "Ally McBeal," Jenny photographs unseen truths about the world.

The dramedy was originally developed for ABC, which passed on it. When executive producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen (the producing duo behind "Big Fish" and "American Beauty") heard that Lifetime was interested in "Side Order," they were initially wary.

"We thought, Lifetime? We don't know if that's our sensibility," Jinks said. "They convinced us that this is a new Lifetime and they're looking to do more interesting and edgier programming."

Daniels said she's so committed to the network's summer slate that she is planning to renew the most promising series for a second season, even if it's not an instant success.

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