How To Make TV ‘For Women’
By Lauren Duca
“Memories of Melodrama” opens with a close-up of a young woman clutching an office landline phone. The camera zooms in on her lunch, iced coffee cup pooled with condensation next to a sad desk salad. A violin-heavy instrumental gallops into a distressing crescendo as the last lines of her call come into focus.
“I haven’t found anything,” she says, her desperation echoed by the bleak glow of unfortunate fluorescent lighting overhead. The music halts as a chilly voice on the other end cuts in. “And you never will.”
The words “Memories of Melodrama” flash across the screen in blood-red lettering, before the scene transitions to aerial shots of New York City.
“This was me, three months earlier,” I narrate, as the former child star playing me crosses a street in a flirty skirt. “I was a carefree reporter who thought it might be fun to write a story about Lifetime. I had no idea I’d become part of a Lifetime movie in the process of writing it.”
It all started back in August, when I was covering “UnREAL,” the Lifetime drama set behind the scenes of a fictional reality dating competition. My interview with co-creator Marti Noxon was fascinating, especially when she got candid about Lifetime’s reputation. She was respectful, but didn’t hold back her concern that the network might soften the feminist tones of the show she pitched.
“I have to say, the experience we had on ‘UnREAL’ was really new for everybody,” she said, emphasizing her pleasant surprise. “It was new for everybody on Lifetime, it was new for me working with them.”
Clearly, Lifetime has been going through some rebranding. Take, for example, Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig skewering the stereotypes of a Lifetime movie in a Lifetime movie dubbed “A Deadly Adoption.” The channel — once known as a factory of made-for-TV movies about women getting murdered, or avoiding getting murdered, or doing the murdering themselves — is now creating space for one of the smartest female antiheroes to date on “UnREAL.”
I was interested in what was happening to foster this new space and set out to speak to a few executives. Unfortunately, Lifetime only offered one interviewee, who had been at the network only seven weeks at the time. Everyone else was “kind of on vacation.” I started reaching out to past executives. Lifetime found out, discouraged contact and even proposed rescinding my initial interview.
Stubbornly set on executing this piece (and jokingly wondering if Lifetime was trying to cover up a murder of its own), I started speaking to other people, people who shaped the early days of the channel. Spoiler alert: If a dark past exists, I didn’t unearth it. But what unfolded is a complicated history of “TV for women” as a genre, and a retelling of the way Lifetime created a brand out of that demographic.
Lifetime’s most recent logo transition.
Lifetime didn’t set out to be a silo of movies about ladies triumphing over tragedy. Its mid-’80s origins were an obvious answer to a gaping hole in the emerging cable landscape: there wasn’t a clear channel for women.
Crafting a concept of TV “for women,” however, was as slippery then as it is today, particularly when Lifetime’s first head of original programming had to convince other executives that no, women do not need a special type of “news” (the news “for women” is just “the news”).
“TV for women” was treated as such a niche demographic at the time that it may as well have been for, say, left-handed libertarians with alopecia rather than half the population. Having a board of nine men dictating the network’s trajectory from its inception probably didn’t help much.
In interviews with The Huffington Post, four of the earliest Lifetime executives referred to the network’s early incarnations using the term “hodgepodge.” One reviewer referred to it as a “backwater” channel. Some casual viewers thought it might be religious. When it was created in 1984, as a combination of the Daytime and Cable Health Networks, a joint venture by ABC, Hearst and Viacom, Lifetime was more “loosely female-centric” than “for women.” There was some medical programming, “Good Sex! With Dr. Ruth” and, by 1985, a lady talk show called “Attitudes,” which was sort of like a less offensive version of “The View.”
For the most part, though, Lifetime’s first few years as a channel were the branding equivalent of throwing tampons at a dart board. Long before Lifetime was seen as a “weepy world” of things to “hate-watch,” it was a channel with no idea what it was or wanted to be.
Lifetime was officially created in February of 1984. When Thomas Burchill was hired as president and CEO that April, he set about establishing an identity. He tried to figure out the network’s image by asking his four inherited employees to finish the sentence, “Lifetime is a … “
No one was able to fill in that blank.
Burchill came in with a background in radio. Given that radio was a multichannel medium, a number of high-powered executives were recruited to help manage the first days of cable television. As Burchill sees it, that meant he was more creative and faster-paced than alternatives might have been. He came armed with ideas for talk shows and understood that audiences and advertisers needed a way to choose Lifetime and keep coming back.
“If you remember, many of the successful early cable networks had a signature of some sort,” Burchill told me, referencing ESPN and MTV. “So, I thought we might try, ‘Lifetime: The network that has America talking.’”
That made sense, given Burchill’s previous experience, but radio’s format felt too antiquated in 1984 to be simply translated to the small screen.
“What Tom wanted to do — what he knew how to do really well — was talk television,” said Doug McCormick, Lifetime’s first head of sales and Burchill’s eventual successor. “He thought you could just take the whole idea of talk radio and have people calling in.”
“It didn’t work so well,” Burchill admitted. Shortly after realizing that, another possibility emerged. “We began to see this big gap [in demographics],” he said. “There was a need to address women’s programming interests.”
BHS / NBC / Getty / HPMG Thomas Burchill, Patricia Fili-Krushel and Doug McCormick.
Burchill was focused on creating a channel that could be sold to cable distribution companies. Before Comcast emerged as the dominant provider, channels had to sell to 10 or 12 different distributors to reach the majority of the country. Burchill had to figure out how to pitch Lifetime to those companies, and fast.
Though dismissive of Burchill’s radio-to-TV model, McCormick used a radio comparison to explain their strategy in that ever-changing market. “You know, when you used to drive a new car out of the showroom, before satellite radio, you had five radio channels to pick,” he said. “We wanted to make sure women knew to pick Lifetime as one of those channels.”
The landscape shifted dramatically as the number of television channels increased from 18 to 54. Today, there’s little point in even counting the total number of networks; as far as competition is concerned, it may as well be limitless.
“I saw a 500-channel layout coming,” McCormick said, reflecting on the way things had changed by the time he became president of Lifetime in 1993. “By then, we were able to save millions in advertising by making it ‘TV for women’ and selling the channel instead of original shows.”
A promotional image for the first-ever Lifetime movie.
Again, it’s bizarre to discuss “women watching most of the TV,” as though women are some tiny group of the total number of humans and not more than 50 percent of them. The concept that lies somewhat deceptively in this rhetoric is that there were actually already a lot of shows for women, just none labeled as such. TV movies, which Showtime and HBO popularized a few years before Lifetime, talk shows and most daytime programing typically attracted a female audience.
Lifetime had to use the raw material of existing female-centric shows to create original programming and shape itself into a brand. They had to take the mass of generally lady-ish stuff on TV at the time and refine it into a product. To start that process, Burchill brought in Patricia Fili-Krushel from HBO as the head of original programming.
Part of that was explaining that a women’s network didn’t just mean shows that had women. Yes, there was a female star, but she had to be complex. It was a lot about projecting what we felt as women. Pat Fili-Krushel
Fili-Krushel, then Fili, was and remains a strong voice in TV. (When she went on to run ABC daytime in 1998, The New York Times dubbed her “the highest-ranking woman executive” in the business. She’s now the executive vice president of NBCUniversal.) When Burchill hired Fili-Krushel, she was excited by the challenge of creating a channel’s identity from scratch.
“It’s like anything else you create from a blank slate,” Fili-Krushel said. “I knew I needed to put it on the map in some way.”
“Part of that was explaining that a women’s network didn’t just mean shows that had women,” she said. “Yes, there was a female star, but she had to be complex,” she continued. “It was a lot about projecting what we felt as women.”
Fili-Krushel first made waves in July of 1991, when she resuscitated “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” on Lifetime after it was canceled on NBC. “A woman named Molly changed the face of Lifetime,” Susan King wrote of the acquisition in the Los Angeles Times. Fili-Krushel then focused on original movies, particularly ones that empowered a female protagonist.
Unfortunately, “strong female characters” was not a very sexy selling point when it came to filling ad space.
In defining what exactly a “women’s network” meant, there were two sentiments held between Fili-Krushel’s programming team and McCormick’s sales team. As Burchill remembers it, the former was interested in figuring out what the right kind of content for women was, while the latter “cared about ratings and how to get there.” The clash created a professional rivalry, ending when McCormick was named Burchill’s successor over Fili-Krushel in 1993.
Burchill referred to that early sparring as “healthy,” though it was much more complex than two employees vying for influence at a fledgling network. Fili-Krushel and McCormick’s dynamic was loosely representative of the struggle at the core of the Lifetime brand. The two are almost symbols for what the channel became in the early ’90s and its continued evolution decades later.
Perhaps there’s a modern-day Shakespearean telling of this story, in which Fili-Krushel is the tragic feminist hero, McCormick is a greedy villain, and women’s programming is the damsel in distress. That’d be entertaining literature. Maybe even a good show for the current Lifetime network. It’s also not what happened.
Fili-Krushel and McCormick had — as everyone in this story had or have — a business to run. In a perfect world, there might be a channel called The Feminist Movie Network, only distributing films approved by a board of thought leaders headed by Alison Bechdel. A theoretical idea can never be pure in its execution.
All this is to say, keep in mind, that the Lifetime narrative is a little black, a little white, and a whole lot of grey — reimagined in varying shades of pink.
Of course, it’s impossible to discuss Lifetime without Lifetime movies, and the quintessential way to describe the Fili-McCormick struggle is with two of the earliest originals: “Wildflower” and “Memories of Murder.”
“Memories of Murder” was the first ever original Lifetime movie, so the fact that it is so on-the-nose for the micro-genre is almost as terrifying as getting temporary amnesia while there’s a killer on the loose (the plot of the film, pretty much).
The writer, John Harrison, said he initially titled the movie “Passing Through Veils,” though he gave up the rights to dictate the way the story was told when he sold the script. Harrison doesn’t regret signing his script over, but the finished product was definitely a misstep for the channel, in terms of critical reception. (Entertainment Weekly gave the movie a “D,” writing, “[Star Nancy Allen] comes uncannily close to reproducing the state of catatonia that ‘Memories of Murder’ will induce in anyone who watches it.”)
“Wildflower,” on the other hand, is the quintessential representation of what Lifetime movies might have been in their purest form. Directed by Diane Keaton, it tells the story of an abused, partially deaf girl played by Patricia Arquette, who finds herself and a place in her community with the help of a very earnest Reese Witherspoon. It has aggressive themes buried under its soft packaging. In a different world, it might have been titled something like “Sounds of Abuse,” maybe “Beaten to Deaf.” Thankfully it wasn’t.
“We had a rule about what makes a Lifetime movie,” Fili-Krushel said. “Originally, a Lifetime movie meant the woman couldn’t be saved by a man at the end.”
McCormick, however, understood Fili-Krushel’s goals less as moral standards to strive toward and more so as rules that could be bent.
“Not every show has to keep every promise, but no show should ever break a promise,” McCormick said. “In other words, we want to be uplifting to women; that’s great. But if I want to have a show on that is not uplifting to women, but on the other hand, it’s fun, you know, or a guilty pleasure that’s just lighthearted.”
At this point in my discussions, Fili-Krushel and McCormick’s voices start to merge. Where they were disparate, they begin to overlap, with each understanding the other’s challenges and goals. It’s too easy to say “Wildflower” is to Fili-Krushel as “Memories of Murder” is to McCormick, though it’s obvious which won out. Even a deaf girl with amnesia could figure out the trashy thriller would perform better.
“’Memories of Murder’ scored much better ratings,” Emily Yahr wrote in her history of Lifetime movies for The Washington Post. “The contrast helped the network decide what direction it wanted to go.”
Still, there was a lot of feminist content in those early years of Lifetime. It was just wearing a tighter dress. As a writer, that’s where things zoomed into focus for me. I can create this thorough, well-reported, multi-thousand word piece on Lifetime and call it “A History of Women’s Programming.” I could also call it “TV’s Vagina Vendetta.” Both angles have their merits. As the creator, should I be more concerned with the content or the way it’s distributed?
Maybe there’s a future where a “History of Lifetime” piece goes viral and wine is zero calories and you don’t have to buy Hulu Plus to binge “Seinfeld.” But here, in real life, to make my work worthy of the time I’ve spent, it has to hit a huge audience. Or, as McCormick put it, “It’s the sound of a tree falling in the universe, if you can’t get people to see it.”
There were showcase pieces but there was also pure popcorn. We wouldn’t have been able to do anything if it was all ‘Eat your peas.’ Doug McCormick
Another movie, 1993’s “Stolen Babies,” sums up the dichotomy of Lifetime’s identity in those early films. Yes, it’s called “Stolen Babies.” And the title delivers on its sordid promise, offering viewers a glimpse into a black market baby ring. It’s also an independent film starring Mary Tyler Moore with a plot that addresses issues of motherhood and female agency.
“It’s a matter of making great content with great marketing,” Burchill said, emphasizing the value of compelling packaging.
That’s not to say everything on Lifetime is secretly a feminist masterpiece stuffed into Cosmo cover advertising. “There were showcase pieces, but there were also pure popcorn,’” McCormick said. “We wouldn’t have been able to do anything if it was all, ‘Eat your peas.’”
A more recent version of what you might call the “Stolen Babies” phenomenon is “Anna Nicole” (2013). A movie about Anna Nicole Smith is, at first glance, so precisely a ripped-from-the-tabloids film it may as well be Harvey Levin reading TMZ’s old stories. It doesn’t even need a cheesy title. Her name alone is probably a bigger draw than something inflammatory like “Dead Gold Digger.”
But there’s a catch: the movie was directed by acclaimed “American Psycho” director Mary Harron.
Harron struggled to make “Anna Nicole” her own, but she says she eventually created a movie she is proud of. “I felt like I was doing something undercover,” she admitted, recalling the process of making the movie.
You’re being held to this idea of, ‘This is how we do a film.’ If you come in with something different, then you have to sort of push them, if you can, or persuade them, hopefully, to go in a different direction. Mary Harron
One aspect of the quiet clash between Harron’s style and the Lifetime mold came with the movie’s opening sequence. Lifetime wanted to start with a newscast announcing Smith’s death. Harron fought for more abstract, stylistic images of her body in the morgue against a white backdrop.
“You’re being held to this idea of, ‘This is how we do a film,’” she said. “If you come in with something different, then you have to sort of push them, if you can, or persuade them, hopefully, to go in a different direction.”
As the critic Matt Patches wrote in his review, the film “could have been another movie off the network’s conveyor belt. Yet with Harron, Lifetime finds a credible and sensitive filmmaker, able to elevate the material and mine its dramatic potential.”
To be clear, “Anna Nicole” was not, nor was it trying to be, anything so noble as Lifetime’s “The Gabby Douglas Story” (2014). There was and continues to be a spectrum of content on the channel. Still, both of those films are part of a holistic shift in quality that began for Lifetime in 2012 with a remake of “Steel Magnolias” featuring a primarily black cast. All three mark the distinct reclamation of the TV movie Lifetime began about three years ago.
The TV movie is often seen as a lesser medium, though there’s no reason for that to be the case. Sure, there are reduced resources, but just because you’re not going to get a few million dollars to CGI some Transformers doesn’t mean there is a lesser opportunity for good storytelling.
“You know, it could have been on the big screen,” the director of 2012’s “Steel Magnolias,” Kenny Leon, said. “But, you know, for me, as a director, I’m shooting it that way anyway. I’m shooting it as a film. I don’t say, ‘I’m shooting it as a TV movie.’”
“It’s kind of like doing a low-budget movie,” Harron reiterated. “I never had any prejudices against working in television … I always thought it was a great medium. It’s just what you do with it.”
While they may have a smaller budget and cramped schedules — “Steel Magnolias” was shot in under 20 days — TV movies are often given a greater amount of freedom. TV remakes can allow more space for diversity, giving access to women and people of color who often can’t get past the roadblocks of dealing with big-name studios. Case in point, where the hell else are you going to see a female-centric story led entirely by women of color promoted for a mainstream audience?
I think that what is finally happening, especially with Lifetime, is that the broadcasters are allowing us a little more freedom to tell our stories … There is a much higher standard to strive for. David Rosemont
Talking to talents like Leon and Harron sets up a clear view of the channel’s movie-making process. Lifetime movies are understood as a mass of murder-y sameness, but each film is the work of a creator trying to do her or his best in the context of the network’s brand.
“I love movies for television, but I look at them as movies that are playing on television,” said David Rosemont, who produced “Steel Magnolias” and “The Gabby Douglas Story,” among other Lifetime movies. “I think that what is finally happening, especially with Lifetime, is that the broadcasters are allowing us a little more freedom to tell our stories … There is a much higher standard to strive for.”
While there is still a whole slew of “unauthorized” films (“90210,” “Saved by the Bell,” “Full House”) on Lifetime, that seem to be created as intentional camp in the way of “Sharknado,” there is also a set of more mainstream efforts striving for a higher level of recognition, like Angela Bassett’s “Whitney” (2015) biopic or “Flowers in the Attic” (2014) starring Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn. Such projects have been on the rise for the past three years, culminating in the much-talked-about “A Deadly Adoption.”
And then, there’s “UnREAL.”
“I think ‘UnREAL’ is a game-changer for us,” said the current head of programming at Lifetime, Liz Gateley. “It so much represents where Lifetime is headed and it’s squarely within my brand vision [for] the new Lifetime.”
Despite its ingenuity, “UnREAL” is still seen by some as a “guilty pleasure” show, with viewers fooled by its sly tone, one the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum described as “greasy bacon … at once sweet and salty, greasy and irresistible.”
It’s also not quite as “new” as it seems. Upon a closer look, “UnREAL” actually epitomizes the network’s paradox. Juicy packaging makes the show a Trojan horse of feminism, far better than but not unlike “Stolen Babies” or, more recently, “Drop Dead Diva.” (The latter is Josh Berman’s dramedy about a model who dies and is brought back to life as an overweight attorney, which advertised itself as magical realism with a ton of fat jokes and ended up being a fun, semi-intelligent take on body positivity.)
While “UnREAL” is groundbreaking in terms of acclaim, it’s actually very much in line with that early combination of Fili-Krushel and McCormick’s visions.
Gateley came to Lifetime, by her own account, just two weeks before “UnREAL” began. She has a sense of rightful pride when talking about the network’s notoriety, though she can’t provide details on its history.
“For me personally, I can’t speak to the last three or four years,” she said. “I know that there’s been a concerted effort to bring the brand in a new direction since [CEO] Nancy Dubuc.”
Dubuc is the head of A&E, which bought Lifetime in 2009. The most current changes, along with a new Lifetime logo and tagline — “your life. your time,” all lowercase — can be traced to that deal.
“I think the goal was to make the movies more relevant,” said Tanya Lopez, senior vice president of original movies, in the aforementioned piece by The Washington Post.
“Look, I’m a big believer that a lot of the elements of the old Lifetime movie — like the melodrama and the female aspect of it — are really important,” vice president of original movies Lisa Hamilton Daly told Yahr. “It’s just finding a newer take on it and finding a new way to tell those stories.”
In writing this, I requested interviews with Lopez and Hamilton-Daly, among other executives who currently work for Lifetime, but was turned down. After speaking with Gateley, I emailed senior vice president of publicity Danielle Carrig for more sources. I explained to her that, as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Gateley had only been at the network seven weeks, so I wanted other voices for the story who could speak to the history of the network. That’s when she said everyone was on vacation.
In August, Carrig found out that I had reached out to past executives on my own, and she requested I send her a full list of my sources. I called to explain that a number of my interviews were off the record, so I could not provide names. She said she would retract my Gateley interview unless I handed over a full list of sources. At that point, I wondered if Lifetime had blocked me from speaking to a number of potential sources, a few of which Yahr was able to speak with in January.
Fili-Krushel and McCormick left the network by 1998, so there remains a decade-long gap in this timeline. It’s not too hard to fill in, simply by virtue of being alive as a woman has who watched Lifetime over the years.
Yahr summarized the late 1990s to mid 2000s, writing, “As the movies became more popular … [the network] became known for ‘teens in crisis’ and ‘women in peril’ themes.” So, yeah, nothing too shocking among the likes of “Mom at Sixteen” and “Cyber Seduction: His Secret Life.”
Before leaving, McCormick launched the Lifetime Movie Network, expanding the impact of Lifetime’s arsenal of content and its impact. Around that time, Geraldine Laybourne created Oxygen. It was less so competition than a solid reason for Lifetime to earn an increased budget. If there are key changes during this time, they have to do more with what was going on outside of Lifetime than within, the way ideas of the brand were spreading and warping.
Go on, do any general search for Lifetime Movies and the links not provided by the network itself are evidence of the way the channel may still be viewed. Almost all current coverage is an elbow-to-the-ribs mocking of the type. See: “How to Navigate the Weepy World of Lifetime Movies” by the A.V. Club, “The 10 Types of Lifetime Movie Titles” by Vulture, “7 Lifetime Movies That Aren’t Completely Terrible” by VH1 or “The 10 Most So-Bad-They’re-Good Lifetime Movies of All Time” by Women’s Health Magazine. Admittedly, it’s a thing I, too, got somewhat wrong in writing “Think Twice Before You Binge-Watch All Those Lifetime Movies On Netflix.”
This piece was inspired by the creative freedom Lifetime gave Noxon and “UnREAL.” It seemed a part of the same freedom that had allowed Wiig and Ferrell to make “A Deadly Adoption.” My plan was to put together a feature on how such a strategically laissez-faire attitude might have come to be. This could have been a quick, seven-hundred word recap of Lifetime’s current plans.
Then Carrig started dodging my reporting efforts, turning me into a Lifetime protagonist by virtue of having an antagonist to cope with. There may well be a more scintillating story I’m missing, but it is hard to imagine Lifetime executives committing the crimes upon which they base their movies, sacrificing virgins in exchange for ratings. More likely, the brand is focused on promoting its current iteration without delving into its development or highlighting the almost accidental way projects like “UnREAL” and “A Deadly Adoption” fell together to start the current conversation.
But it’s hard to talk about the current face of the channel without revisiting its foundation. Lifetime’s place as the very first network “for women” is fundamental to Carrig and Gateley’s current attempts to sharpen the identity Burchill, Fili-Krushel and McCormick set out to build.
Lifetime’s history holds up a mirror to the hesitation some have talking about TV “for women.” The fact is, that qualifier hasn’t lost its stigma in the past 30 years. Thrillers and melodramas on Lifetime, and outside of it, are still dismissed for their inherent feminine appeal, seen as less-than because of their packaging. They are attached to “guilt” like a commercial about a woman eating chocolate in a bathtub. It’s valuable to strive for stronger content as well, but women are a massive demographic that doesn’t always need to be eating popcorn or peas.
“[The change] is an evolution with the times,” Gateley said. “We’re trying to be something for every contemporary woman.”
And that could be part of the problem. There’s not one thing that is going to satisfy the target group known as “women.” From goofy trash like “Restless Virgins” to meditations on female identity like “UnREAL,” there’s a wide range of types of entertainment Lifetime represents. Yet, they express a hesitation to own any of it, with the brand both shying away from addressing the well-known reputation of its made-for-TV movies and refusing to directly attach themselves to the word “feminist” (Gateley chose “ass-kicking” as her adjective of choice).
We’re trying to be something for every contemporary woman. Liz Gateley
But wouldn’t this current, more visible reworking of Lifetime be even stronger if it accepted the history of the brand while pursuing a brighter future? It would be empowering to see Lifetime own the sector of TV “for women,” to refuse to apologize for how that type of programming fits into pop culture, and embrace it.
“Memories of Melodrama” draws to a close with the typing of these last few lines.
“Sometimes the best stories are the ones you least expect,” I narrate, as bright, hopeful stock music begins to play. The Lauren Duca character sighs, takes a sip of her tea and smiles.
Originally published on The Huffington Post.