Happy Anniversary Lifetime! A Look Back on 35 Years of Reality, Drama & Original Movies
The preferred “modern” gift for a 35th anniversary may be jade, but Lifetime — which turns 35 on February 1 — has something else that’s green and valuable to show for its milestone: success, the kind fueled by a ratings smash. That would be January’s Surviving R. Kelly, a controversial docuseries featuring women breaking their silence with allegations of sexual, mental and physical abuse by the R&B singer. Over the three nights it aired, Surviving averaged 2.1 million viewers and ranked as the No. 1 nonsports program among cable series with viewers age 18–49.
The tie between Lifetime and its audience has thrived thanks to a mission that was unique in 1984 and continues today. “We’ve always championed women’s stories,” says Tanya Lopez, executive vice-president, movies, limited series and original movie acquisitions. “That means smart, fun programming, which is very much what our audience wants.”
The TV landscape was a lot quieter when the network debuted. ABC, CBS and NBC — then known as the Big Three — ruled (Fox didn’t come along until 1986), and while a handful of cable networks existed, none reached that target audience until Lifetime. Currently in 88 million homes, it has fulfilled its mission through scripted hits such as Any Day Now and Drop Dead Diva; reality series including Dance Moms and Project Runway; public affairs campaigns (Stop Breast Cancer for Life turns 25 this year); and, of course, the network’s signature TV movies, which run the gamut from literal and figurative guilty pleasures to serious biopics. Lifetime currently ranks No. 15 among basic cable networks.
When it debuted, the startup was branded “Talk Television” for good reason: Chat shows hosted by familiar faces like Regis Philbin and Dr. Ruth Westheimer populated its schedule, along with reruns of dramas such as L.A. Law and Moonlighting. Viewers started to take notice when Lifetime produced its first scripted series, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (picked up in 1988 after NBC’s cancellation). But it was the often melodramatically titled movies it aired — Fifteen and Pregnant, Lies My Mother Told Me and My Stepson, My Lover, to name a few — that became a brand-building signature.
However, interspersed with such — we’re just gonna say it — cheesy fare were intelligent prestige projects based on actual people and events. Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story, Sela Ward’s 1995 film about the career and untimely death of the TV news anchor, remains one of the network’s highest-rated movies. More recently, 2017’s Flint dug deep into the roots of Michigan’s real-life water crisis. “True stories are more interesting to our audience because they fill the ‘I didn’t know that’ notion,” says Lopez.
That dedication to the original movie is a big draw for producers. “There is more willingness to really celebrate the very maligned genre of the TV movie,” says Neil Meron, executive producer of Flint as well as the 2012 African-American Steel Magnolias remake, both starring Queen Latifah. “Lifetime embraces them in terms of pure entertainment and doing things that are meaningful and emotional.” Big-name stars have also been drawn to over-the-top fare like 2015’s A Deadly Adoption, in which Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig parodied the thriller concept. And in 2016, James Franco starred in and produced a remake of Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? (the original, starring Tori Spelling as a college student dating a killer, aired on NBC in 1996) — with a vampire twist to bump up the crazy. This year, the network is producing or acquiring up to 75 new film titles.
Reality series are also a mix of pure entertainment (the dance team-centric Bring It! returns January 17) to socially relevant (Live PD Presents: Women on Patrol). In terms of the latter, “We can take content from the headlines and shine a light on it in a way other networks can’t and don’t,” says Gena McCarthy, executive vice-president, unscripted, and head of programming. “We’re very proud of that.”
Where does that leave original scripted shows? The network let go of last fall’s hit psycho drama You (Season 2 moves to Netflix) and its behind-the-scenes Bachelor-esque series UnReal (the final season aired on Hulu), but execs still plan to develop new options. American Princess, for example, about an NYC socialite who walks away from her posh life, debuts this summer. “We’re regrouping,” admits Lopez, adding that the mandate moving forward is to consider not only what viewers watch but how. Just as Surviving R. Kelly aired over three consecutive nights, in this bingeing culture, the network may present its scripted series the same way. “We have to [air] shows the way our audience wants to watch them,” Lopez says.
Ultimately, Lopez believes Lifetime’s future hinges on its loyal and diverse viewership. “When I’m asked, ‘Do you think your audience has changed?’ I put it back on us and say, ‘No, we’ve had to change for our audience.’”