When she arrived 28 months ago as new president and CEO, Lifetime was a bastion of low-rated, older-femme-skewing syndicated comedies (“Golden Girls,” anyone?) and cheesy made-for-TV movies. Wong, ex head of reality programming for ABC, immediately went to work, orchestrating the launch of a much-needed original-series hit, “Army Wives,” while enlisting former Fox and WB marketing gurus Bob Bibb and Lew Goldstein to help liven up the brand. The network’s new “Drop Dead Diva” debuted to 2.8 million this summer, and on Aug.20, it will host its most anticipated premiere ever when “Project Runway” moves over from Bravo.
Will the Lifetime’s “Runway” be much different from the one we got used to on Bravo?
It’s the same show but set in L.A., which actually enhances the challenges and mixes things up, since it’ll have different guest judges. We felt it was important to keep what fans loved about it, but we see an opportunity to market it in two ways – to the “Runway” fan who’s moving over to Lifetime, as well as the regular Lifetime viewer who hasn’t sampled the show yet.
You’re paying the Weinstein Co. $140 million for a show that’s entering its sixth cycle. What do you hope to get out of that?
It’s the perfect fit for us — we see it as sort of the third prong to our programming strategy. We already had great strength in movies, and we’ve developed great strength in series, with “Army Wives” and “Drop Dead Diva.” But we’ve had a hard time launching unscripted programming. “Runway” not only gives us a great brand, it gives us a toehold in that genre.
You’ve brought Lifetime a long way. What were your first thoughts when you first arrived back in April 2007?
I saw a really great brand that had great strength. But while women knew it was for them, they didn’t know it was for them specifically. The core audience had gotten smaller and smaller and smaller. So the challenge right off the bat was to make the network more contemporary, relevant and energetic.
What was your first move?
Getting out and talking to the creative community and telling them how we want to evolve Lifetime and give it a greater profile. We told them that talent and great creators would have a home here, and that we would take care of them. For example, I sat down with (“Hairspray” producers) Craig Zadan and Neil Meron and said, “Please do something at Lifetime.” The first thing they brought us was (TV movie) “Living Proof,” starring Harry Connick Jr. Then they brought us “Drop Dead Diva,” which has enjoyed our strongest launch since “Army Wives” and is a great indicator of where we’re going.
With Oxygen and Bravo around, just to name a few women-targeted cable networks, yours is getting to be a pretty competitive market.
The world is getting to be a more competitive every single day, and it’s not just women’s cable networks we’re competing with. It’s across the board — it’s broadcast networks, too.
You moved most of the channel out to L.A. What has that done for you?
The first thing we did was move marketing because it’s really critical to have marketing and programming work hand in hand. And the most effective way to do that is to make them sit next to each other. We saw the impact immediately — the marketing department is energizing the look and feel of Lifetime.
In addition to launching “Diva,” you’ve also acquired younger-skewing offnet shows like CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother.” Has that made your audience younger?
It was 48 or 49 when I started. Now it’s 46. It gets younger every year. Ironically, it’s now lower than a broadcast network.
How important a role will made-fors have for Lifetime going forward?
I think movies are a vital part of the Lifetime brand. The Lifetime Movie Network is the fastest growing network in the industry right now. It has 70 million subscribers and is sort of the unsung hero of the company right now. We make 12-18 movies a year for that channel, and we intend for that to be a real growth business for us going forward.
Traffic is up across your websites right now, and you’ve recently acquired South Korean dress-up site Roiworld and the parent-targeted MothersClick. What’s the strategy here?
We are a lifestyle brand rather than just a TV brand – we stand for entertainment and escape and advocacy on behalf of other women. We see a big opportunity (in broadband) — we don’t think there are a lot of people targeting women in the digital space. We’ve tripled our traffic in the last year – and we’re just getting started here.