Women's television is hitting its stride

Programming: Three cable networks pursue their ideas about what women want.

January 02, 2001|By Elizabeth Jensen | Elizabeth Jensen,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK - What do women want? That's what cable television is trying to figure out.

Women used to want life as it should be, according to the thinking behind the Romance Classics cable network. Now, Romance Classics, whose centerpiece was a lineup of romantic movies, is set to become WE: Women's Entertainment. It seems the research showed that women are more interested in life as it is, and how to make it easier.

Cable viewing is growing by leaps and bounds, and the medium has more and more money to spend on original programming and marketing. But the competition is stiffer, too: Where once there was a single sports channel and a lone kids' outlet, each niche now gets subdivided into several channels all pursuing a similar audience.

Enter the branding people, whose job it is to help viewers distinguish between "Intimate Portraits," "Cool Women" and "Who Does She Think She Is?" - the women's profile shows airing respectively on Lifetime, WE: Women's Entertainment and Oxygen.

The women's category is particularly tricky, because most channels, including the broadcast networks, are targeted to attract the attention of a broad swath of women. For years, Lifetime carved out a niche for itself with a general-interest network marketed to women.

Then in February Oxygen came along, promising more service-oriented fare - how to handle money, morning yoga classes - and a hipper attitude, as well as interaction with Internet users who would help shape the channel. With Oxygen off to a slow start, Romance Classics is looking to expand its profile by becoming WE: Women's Entertainment.

The Romance Classics changeover, which has been taking place gradually in the last year, will be official on April 1. "We changed because women changed," says Kate McEnroe, president of Rainbow Media Holdings' AMC Networks, parent of WE: Women's Entertainment. The lineup, aimed at women who are playing multiple roles in life and have little free time, includes more general-entertainment movies but also series such as "Cool Women," "Journey Women Off the Map," about real women traveling alone, and "Style World," emceed by model Rachel Hunter.

The new channel's first movie - "Yellow Bird," produced by Faye Dunaway - is in production. WE has also partnered with its sister network, Independent Film Channel, and IFC Films, producer of "Boys Don't Cry," on theatrical films that will premiere on WE.

As for the differences with Lifetime, McEnroe says WE's goals are different, with more reality-based programming and "more inspiration and aspiration. Some women like to watch programming because other women's lives aren't as productive or flourishing as theirs. It makes them feel better. We have no women in distress. We're more a celebration of great accomplishments, of ordinary women doing extraordinary things."

Counters Lifetime President Carole Black: "Our most popular films tell true stories of strong women who overcome adversity, which our viewers tell us are inspiring and empowering. Women are very smart, and we are honored that they spend their precious free time with us."

Indeed, despite the new competition, Lifetime has enjoyed a good year. The network is now available in 78 million households, up from 73 million a year ago. (Romance Classics is seen in 37 million homes and just announced cable system carriage agreements, including one with Charter Communications, that will bring it to about 45 million. Oxygen is carried in 12.3 million homes, with commitments to be in 32 million by the end of 2002.)

Lifetime was also one of the few large cable networks to see its ratings go up in 2000, with the network's total day household ratings up by 10 percent. The network also tied for honors as the second-most-popular cable outlet behind Nickelodeon for the total day. In November, Lifetime on average reached 1.27 million homes in prime time and 847,000 homes on a total-day basis.

"Any time you're growing every month, it's a sign that viewers are liking what you're doing," Black says.

Lifetime's original movies are becoming less formulaic and attracting higher-profile talent: A January project, "What Makes a Family," stars Brooke Shields, Cherry Jones and Anne Meara in a true story of a gay woman fighting to regain custody of her child from the child's grandparents. Its executive producers include Barbra Streisand and Whoopi Goldberg.

Goldberg is also executive producer of Lifetime's new drama "Strong Medicine," which deals with women's health issues and launched this season as basic cable's top-rated original drama. Another new drama about female cops, "The Division," makes its debut in January.

The gains have come at a price. Marketing efforts have almost doubled, and the public affairs and communications budget has tripled in the last couple of years as the competitive environment has toughened. WE: Women's Entertainment, which has an advantage because it can be promoted on sister networks American Movie Classics, Bravo and IFC, has its own plans for a multimillion-dollar marketing push in mid-January.

If the women's category seems crowded now, it's only going to get more so. Lifetime, which already has a Lifetime Movie Network that reaches more than 12 million homes, has tested and is about to give the go-ahead to a third network, which it declined to identify.

For Lifetime's Black, a former Procter & Gamble marketer, the key to success in women's cable starts with listening to women, she said, and "if you are real clear what you're about and then you deliver on your promise, they'll be there for you."

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