Today marks the 35th anniversary of Lifetime. It is being celebrated with a marathon of signature original movies from the past two decades, like Flirting with Forty, Homeless to Harvard, Steel Magnolias and The Gabby Douglas Story.
Besides a tribute to the network’s past, the marathon is a nod to its future. Last summer, under new A+E Networks CEO Paul Buccieri, Lifetime made a change in its programming strategy, putting emphasis back on original movies and using them as backdoor pilots over traditional series development.
The network signaled its renewed push in original movies last August when it announced a 2019 slate of 75 films.
“It’s gotten so much higher than that,” said Lifetime veteran Tanya Lopez, EVP, Movies, Limited Series & Original Movie Acquisitions. “I wouldn’t say that we’re doubling that but we’re definitely increasing them.” (The count includes both originals and acquisitions.)
The shift does not mean lesser commitment to scripted programming. “We couldn’t be more in the scripted programming than any other network, it’s just not going to feel like everyone else, and I’m okay with that because I don’t think we can grow this business if we’re like everybody else,” Lopez said. “The fact that I’m making deals and development deals for two-hour backdoor pilots is really where our strategy is leaning because for me our audience knows that they can come to us and watch a movie. That is the format of which they are most comfortable engaging, and so for that reason I want to introduce them to a series with that format. I feel like that’s how we’re going to get the biggest audience.”
The strategy recalibration came after a reality check by the company brass about the demographics that watch Lifetime and linear TV in general when two praised younger-skewing series, UnReal and You, did well on streaming platforms but failed to draw sizable audiences on Lifetime.
“Those are great shows, I’m really proud of them,” Lopez said. “I look at the success that You is having on Netflix, I think it’s thriving where it should thrive, and it didn’t belong on our network. I feel like we’ve been going after an age group of women that isn’t necessarily coming to Lifetime. In the ever-changing marketplace of all that’s being offered out there, we’re still relying on linear television viewing, and that really serves a certain age woman, probably more 25 to 54 rather than 18 to 45. So said okay, strategically let’s look at our audience as to what the women in that age group want rather than trying to bring in a younger woman that isn’t really watching television in the same way the other demo is.”
Lifetime has a track record of turning successful TV movies into series, including the 2010 The Client List starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. Instead of trying to create a business and creative template for a series after the movie had already aired, the network is now laying the groundwork early in the process.
The difference is for writers to adjust to writing two-hour pilot scripts vs. one-hour. Lopez and her team would greenlight the scripts that stand out. After they watch the two-hour movie/backdoor pilot, there are several ways they could go. If the movie knocks it out of the park, the network may opt to not even air it as is but go straight to series. The network brass could also decide to hold off and turn the pilot into a 6- to 10-episode limited series. Or they could put the finished movie on the air and see how it does before making further decisions.
Lifetime also is open to picking up whole movie franchises. Following the success of its movie adaptation of V.C. Andrews’ Flowers In the Attic and sequel Petals On the Wind, Lifetime greenlighted Andrews’ entire Casteel book series as five movies, which will air as a series movie event, with all five airing back-to-back.
And network is still willing to take an idea and go straight-to-series, which is the case with its only current series, the upcoming American Princess, which Lopez is really excited about it.
What you won’t see is Lifetime reverting to the traditional pilot development model. “That is a business that feels archaic now, and isn’t smart for our network,” Lopez said.
Meanwhile, TV movies too have been a challenging business proposition, leading to many networks and studios leaving the space. Because Lifetime is doing so many of them, there is a built-in viewer awareness which reduces the need for extensive marketing campaigns. As for production companies, some of the movie projects come from Lifetime’s sibling A+E Studios, some from outside.
Also helping viewers know what to expect is the network’s strategy of branding its movies by grouping them into four themes throughout the year. Right now, it’s a biopic theme with Escape From the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story, Love You To Death and Olivia Newton-John: Hopelessly Devoted To You. It will be followed by inspirational/aspirational movies in March with I Am Somebody’s Child, among others. In June, Lifetime is kicking off its summer escape theme, which the VC Andrews adaptations will be part of, before heading into the holiday-themed It’s A Wonderful Lifetime in the fall.
As the business model for Lifetime’s original movies has evolved, so has their content, moving away from the “women in peril” type of movies Lifetime had been known for.
“In women in peril movies, women will always be subjects of some violent act on them. Now the movies that we are developing and airing are about women who are inspirational, they are succeeding, bad asses and the characters that are driving the story,” Lopez said.
She gave as examples the network’s last two movies: The Nellie Bly Story, about the journalist uncovering injustices that were happening to women during that period, and the highly rated Love You To Death, about a young woman taking back control of her own life. The trend carries over to upcoming movies such as I Am Somebody’s Child.
Here is Lifetime’s 35th anniversary reel, which features many of the network’s best known movies:
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