What Women Watch

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'Strong Medicine' is one of LIFETIME's most successful dramas

There are so many ways for a woman to be wronged--by her husband, boss, government, water supply--and the Lifetime network seems to have explored them all. Lifetime bills itself as Television for Women, but some critics have dubbed it Television for Victims. The truth is, Lifetime is no one's patsy. Last month it was the No. 1-rated cable network in prime time, as it has been every month this year. It also averaged the No. 1 spot for all of 2001.

Lifetime, which debuted in 1984, has thrived despite the introduction of two other networks courting the female gender: Oxygen, which launched in 2000 and has staked out upscale urban women, and WE: Women's Entertainment, launched in 2001, which offers viewers lighthearted diversion. While some may question whether women need their own network, let alone three, there are an ample number of viewers. Cable has succeeded by attracting niche audiences, and at 51% of the population, women are the largest niche out there. They are also a vastly appealing one, since they make an estimated 85% of household purchasing decisions. But can Oxygen and WE convince women--and advertisers--that they offer something better than Lifetime?

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The two new channels have just reported their ratings for the first time, and according to Nielsen Media Research, Lifetime doesn't have much to worry about. Oxygen on average is watched in only 52,000 households in prime time, WE in 110,000. Lifetime averages 1.9 million homes. The newcomers have had trouble getting onto cable systems and are available in only about half as many households as Lifetime. But even in homes with all three, Lifetime triumphs in every demographic.

The fact that so many women respond to a network on which a show's title is likely to include the word betrayed or scorned has generated some derision and concern. "We've heard the criticism before," says Lifetime's marketing director, Rick Haskins, "but not from viewers." In fact, Lifetime, a joint venture of Hearst and Disney, seems to have solved the eternally vexing question of what women want. Men, take note: it figured out the answer by asking.

When president Carole Black arrived in 1999, she ratcheted up spending on research, a technique from her days in marketing at Procter & Gamble. It showed that women were not interested in watching romance or fantasy; they wanted to see themselves. "Woman escape by empathizing and feeling they are empathized with," says Black. Lifetime does tweak reality a bit, making sure women always triumph.

The most successful shows are a trio of original dramas on Sunday night: Any Day Now, about two friends, one black, one white; Strong Medicine, centering on a women's medical clinic; and The Division, which follows a group of female police officers. The shows are formulaic and earnest, but unlike on ER, the primary characters are all women and the story lines revolve around such issues as child care and date rape. Black believes advocacy is a fundamental part of her mission, so each program addresses a social issue and ends with phone numbers or website addresses for further information. Lifetime wants women to learn something from its shows--it just hides the lesson in a pint of Ben & Jerry's.

Having cultivated an identity, the network rarely deviates from it. "The way to get into minds and living rooms is to make your network a brand, and that's what Lifetime does so successfully," says Tom Wolzien, a media analyst at the Wall Street firm Sanford C. Bernstein. Every show reinforces the brand image, whether it's the profiles of celebrated women on Intimate Portrait or original movies like Video Voyeur, based on a true story about a woman who discovers her churchgoing neighbor is a Peeping Tom.

While Lifetime acts as a sympathetic neighbor, Oxygen can seem like a know-it-all older sister, which in a way it is, given the collective success of its founders: Geraldine Laybourne, who led Nickelodeon for 15 years; the production team Carsey Werner Mandabach, whose shows include Roseanne and Cybill; and Oprah Winfrey, who is Oprah Winfrey. The network was conceived to help modern women navigate their lives; it also wanted to merge television and the Internet. Its tone, however, felt preachy, and the Internet didn't quite pan out as expected. Now that some early shows have been jettisoned and website employees laid off, the network is reassessing. "Everyone forgets how hard it is to launch things," says Laybourne, the network's CEO. "Our voice is emerging."

That voice can still feel unfocused. Designer Isaac Mizrahi and actress Carrie Fisher have talk shows, which are often funny but at times a little elitist. In a recent episode of Fisher's Conversations from the Edge, she tells Robin Williams, "This is a women's channel, so I'm going to have to ask for some recipes." Other programs include the upbeat talk show Pure Oxygen, the gritty real-life stories on Women and the Badge, reruns of Xena, Warrior Princess and, oddly, Love American Style, the 1970s paean to free love. Laybourne has not wavered in her mission to have a dialogue with women via the Internet. "Watching Oxygen is not just escaping but participating," she says. But do women want to work at TV?

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