Project Lifetime

Photo: Manuello Paganelli

It's a Sunday evening in a deserted office building in midtown Manhattan and Andrea Wong, the 42-year-old CEO of Lifetime Networks, is midway through a dress rehearsal for a sales pitch. Wong isn't hyping a new star, or a new movie, or even a new series. She's touting an entire year's worth of programming and, if she succeeds, she'll secure the majority of Lifetime's ad revenue for an entire year. This is a mega-pitch, worth several hundred million dollars, and Wong, MBA '93, needs to nail it.

The pitch, running precisely 53 minutes, involves short speeches and a number of video clips. Wong and her staff are watching a clip from an original sitcom—Sherri —starring Sherri Shepherd, the boisterous actress who co-hosts The View. Sherri is explaining why she won't give her two-timing husband a second chance.

Wong's staff has devoted more than 200 meetings and 2 1/2 months of work to fine-tuning this presentation. They know this clip's punch line by heart, and even so, most of them chuckle. Wong doesn't crack a smile: The only question that matters now is whether ad executives will laugh.

In the coming week, Wong and her staff will shuttle around Manhattan to make their case in the boardrooms of 13 major ad agencies. They won't be the only ones out there selling. Each spring, usually at grand centralized events, the heads of the major broadcast and cable networks converge on Manhattan to pitch their shows. The ritual known as upfronts (a time to buy ads "up front," before the season begins) can make or break a network or, for that matter, the network's CEO.

In 2007, Lifetime was represented at upfronts by CEO Betty Cohen, '77, a cable executive famous for overseeing the creation of the Cartoon Network. Lifetime, the top-ranked basic-cable network in households in 2002, had dropped to fifth place. Cohen outlined some rosy prospects —including introducing a drama, Army Wives, that would become a huge hit. But a day after upfronts and only two years on the job, it was announced that Cohen would be leaving Lifetime.

Wong, often identified as "a rising star at ABC," was named the new CEO a day later. She had ushered in ABC's impressive string of reality TV hits including Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, The Bachelor, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Dancing With the Stars. She has spent the past two years reorganizing staff, developing shows and renovating the Lifetime brand—and in these upfronts she will be trying to sell its goods during the worst economy in nearly a century. Little wonder she isn't laughing.

As the rehearsal ends, Wong fires off feedback to her staff. (She says her greatest weakness is that "I can be sharp and direct at times and, depending on your personality, I can come off as abrasive.") To warn them against sounding lukewarm, she tells the staff, "When we talk about Garth Brooks, don't say that he and his wife will do 'what they can' to promote their show." The hit Project Runway isn't cable's top "reality show," but its top "competition reality show"—a distinction the press will pick up on. Finally she wants to change the wording in her bio.

"I took out the part in my bio about my 'meteoric rise,' " she says quietly.

No one replies at first, just a few heads nod approvingly. "What does meteoric really mean anyway?" someone asks. "When I think meteor, it sounds negative because meteors, well . . . you know, they . . ."

Nervous laughter ensues, and no one finishes the thought.

Two days later, at the lobby of the Trump International Hotel & Tower: Andrea Wong is running late—something she never does—and her staff is starting to worry. An elevator door opens, and Wong limps out with a hurt foot. "I've been training for a half marathon." She's wearing a sleek black overcoat cinched by a Prada belt with an ornate silver buckle. Elegance has long been one of Wong's trademarks. "She is probably the only person to wear silk every day of business school," recalls her classmate Liz Hobart Zang, MBA '93.

Glamour notwithstanding, Wong says she comes from relatively humble origins. She grew up as the oldest of five kids in a middle-class home in Sunnyvale, Calif.; her father taught high school math and her mother was a nurse. "I grew up watching The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Three's Company, Dallas, Dynasty, Love Boat and Fantasy Island," says Wong. Yet, despite her fondness for television, she never dreamed of entering that business. "I was the good Chinese kid who, you know, pursued a career in the sciences." She went to MIT, studied to be an engineer, and stuck with that until one summer when she worked on the floor of the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco. "I loved the energy, the pace. It opened up a whole new world to me."

The experience led Wong to the Graduate School of Business and there—of all places—she rediscovered her fondness for television. She hosted social gatherings timed to Melrose Place, kept a TV in her bathroom so she could watch Today each morning, and organized a schoolwide fundraiser that featured an elaborately staged dating game. The game, as it turns out, was very much like The Bachelor. (Wong says learning that first contestant Alex Michel, MBA '98, had gone to Stanford helped convince her that "he'd make a great Bachelor.") Wong took a summer job at NBC, working on Today, and then she was hooked. After graduation, she joined ABC, and from there her rise was, well, meteoric.

Outside the Trump Tower, several black SUVs are idling at the curb, waiting to take us to the ad agency MediaVest. Inside the lead vehicle, Wong looks composed, unruffled. "Typically we will write 70 percent of our sponsorship in the next few days," she tells me matter-of-factly, as we speed across town.

I ask if she's worried. "Cable is healthy compared to the networks," she replies.

These are tough times for the broadcast networks. Like other mass media, broadcast television has shrunk alarmingly in recent years—eroded by cable and Internet competition and by the weakening of the advertising platform due in part to digital video recorders. In 2008, viewership on the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) was down 6 percent collectively, whereas cable viewership saw a gain of 3 percent. And while ad spending was down 3.5 percent for the networks, ad spending climbed by 8 percent on cable.

"The cable networks have so much better programming than they used to," says Gary Lico, president of CableU, a cable television research company. "The quality is constantly improving and being promoted better. The result has been that the broadcast networks have lost viewers and the cable networks have gained them."

But, not surprisingly, the competition within cable has gotten stiffer. Lifetime, which has long dominated the coveted market of women viewers ages 18 to 49, now faces competition from Oxygen, Bravo, the Style Network and Cablevision's WE tv. The Oprah Winfrey Network is expected to launch in early 2010.

Lico says that the key for Lifetime in the coming months and years is programming. "I was surprised that they got rid of Golden Girls," Lico says of the show whose exclusive reruns had been a Lifetime staple. "But they want a new audience. They just have to continue to make programs that get attention like Army Wives and their original movies." And, he emphasizes, the network must not lose its core audience.

Upon arriving at MediaVest, an entourage of at least a dozen Lifetime people walk into the ad agency's conference room. It is easy to distinguish the ad people from the TV people. The Lifetimers are dressed in dark suits. They stand rather stiffly around the perimeter of the room, looking a bit like a Secret Service detail. The ad people are far less kempt. They're in jeans and rumpled shirts, and a few of the guys look like they could use a shave and a hot meal. The ad people also get the seats. At one point, a Lifetime exec cautiously sits down, but when an ad guy in a plaid lumberjack's shirt saunters in, the Lifetimer pops out of his seat so fast you'd think a 99-year-old blind woman with a cane had just entered the room.

Lifetime's house calls at ad agencies are a break with television tradition. Upfronts customarily are held at a large venue (like Radio City Music Hall) in which advertisers and the press gather to see what the networks have to offer. As soon as Wong took over at Lifetime, she insisted on individual, customized visits. "It's a lot more work because we have to make our presentation 13 times," Wong says, "but it's worth it." Bob Bibb and Lew Goldstein, who lead Lifetime's marketing department, were adamant that the network needed to get more aggressive. Lifetime has long been regarded as the channel devoted entirely to women, but Bibb says the network too long "took their dominance for granted."

When she arrived at Lifetime, Wong says she was "blown away" by the situation. "Morale was terrible. We had the wrong people playing in the wrong positions. There was a lack of accountability or clear lines of responsibility. We'd had distribution problems. On every single front of the company there were problems. Lifetime's ratings were dropping by 15 percent. Lifetime's movies ratings were dropping by 40 percent—40 percent—and I was like, Oh, my God, that's a free fall! So my head was about to explode." Shortly after Wong took over, Variety quoted an unnamed entertainment executive as saying: "So much damage was done over there [at Lifetime] that they're literally building the company from the ground up again."

The biggest challenge was to expand viewership. Wong sought to create multigenerational programming—shows that mothers and daughters could watch together. Bibb explained it this way: "The magic occurs when the teenage daughters find the show, and Mom sees that there is something in it for her, too."

To make space for new programming, Wong cut back on the women-in-peril movies that Lifetime had become famous for. "When I got to this company we made 60 [movies] a year, which I thought was unbelievable," Wong told me. The movies were almost all formulaic thrillers. "I came into the first meeting with the movie department, and somebody said, 'Well, you know we're having a hard time finding scripts to make.' And I said, 'Why are we making movies we don't believe in?' We should never, ever make a movie unless we believe in it." With fewer movies, Lifetime could afford "better creative talent, and make them work harder for the brand."

Wong met with Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, Hollywood producers who had created the theatrical-release movies Chicago and Hairspray and a variety of made-for-TV movies that had garnered almost 70 Emmy nominations. Wong told them she wanted to make movies whose writing, cinematography and casts of A-list stars would rival those of HBO. "Lifetime was much maligned in the industry—it had become something of a cliché—and she wanted to broaden its appeal," Meron says. "It is very difficult to change perceptions, but we prevailed upon our talent to come to Lifetime and help move this shift along. And Andrea is so brilliantly self-aware that she actually got on the phone herself and helped wrangle some of that talent, because she wanted to help articulate what the new vision for Lifetime would be."

Zadan's and Meron's first collaboration with Wong was Living Proof, starring Harry Connick Jr. The movie tells the story of Dr. Dennis Slamon's quest to develop Herceptin, the drug that proved so effective in fighting breast cancer. Wong treated Living Proof like a feature film, orchestrating dramatic openings in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and London. The movie's success sent a message that the network was changing.

For the coming year, Lifetime is following up with several films of similar aspiration. Wong commissioned a biopic about Georgia O'Keefe starring Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons, a historical epic with Julia Ormond about trying to exonerate a wronged convict, and a drama centered on themes of death and grief, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Ashton Kutcher.

The next part of Wong's plan was to do exactly what she had done so well at ABC, create hit reality TV shows. Coming attractions at Lifetime include, among others, a show about mothers trying to track down deadbeat dads, a show about couples struggling to raise triplets and stay happily married, and—of course—Project Runway, the smash hit in which unknown fashion designers compete.

The final, and perhaps most daunting, of Wong's tasks was to reformulate Lifetime's brand to make it more appealing to younger women. This is why she hired Bibb and Goldstein. During the early 1990s, they helped mold Fox into the "bad boy network" with hits like Married With Children, The Simpsons and 21 Jump Street. Next they helped WB capture the "good teens" audience, as Bibb put it, with hits like Seventh Heaven, Felicity and Dawson's Creek. Their goal at Lifetime? "Make it more contemporary, make it more appealing to urban sophisticates," Bibb says, "without alienating the young moms in middle America."

During the next 53 minutes, Wong makes her presentation to the MediaVest people. She talks and shows highlights from the original movies, the dramas, the new comedies and the reality TV shows. Lew Goldstein, a poker-faced man in his mid-50s, stands at the back of the room surveying the reactions of the ad people. "I watch them all the time," Goldstein says later. "People don't show everything, but when you see that they like something, it might give you an edge when it comes to talking price."

Initially, the ad people seem only mildly enthused, but the Sherri clip about an African-American woman's faithless husband loosens them up. "Screw me once and shame on me," says Sherri. "Screw a white girl, and we're done!" The room erupts into laughter. The adman in the lumberjack shirt guffaws. Goldstein seems pleased: "People were emoting very well."

As soon as the presentation at MediaVest wraps up, there's a Lifetime press luncheon at Hearst Tower. The luncheon is in a banquet room on the 44th floor, a room whose spectacular views are today obscured by clouds. Not that anyone is looking out the windows. Everyone—from the press to the Lifetime execs to the waiters—is preoccupied with Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen, the stars in the Georgia O'Keefe movie. Allen tells me that Wong seems "totally wonderful and smart," but acknowledges that she met Wong only 20 minutes ago.

Tim Gunn, the on-air mentor of Project Runway, mills about, chatting up the press. Fashion guru Gunn, slender, silver-haired and bespectacled, and supermodel Heidi Klum are the new faces of Lifetime. In five award-winning seasons, Project Runway, with a viewership near 3 million, helped transform Bravo into a major cable network. So how come the sixth season will run on Lifetime? Andrea Wong courted the Weinstein Company, which produces the show, and made them an offer they couldn't refuse: a lucrative five-year contract. That means the show is ensured a lifespan of at least 11 years, which, in TV land, is akin to immortality. NBC Universal, which owns Bravo, wasn't pleased, and it sued the Weinstein Company for violating its contract. The result was a protracted arbitration that wasn't settled until three weeks before this year's upfronts.

During the year when the fate of Project Runway remained up in the air, Gunn found himself in an especially tricky situation. He hosts another show on Bravo, Tim Gunn's Guide to Style. "I felt like I was sitting in the middle of a messy divorce," he tells me. "So I couldn't say anything without either side getting mad." He is quick to add, however, that Wong remained calm through it all. "She was always reassuring. She would always look at me, give me a wink, and say, we will get through this."

Lew Goldstein describes it this way: "Once she realized that there was a chance to make this happen, a chance to get Runway, Andrea launched a relentless mission to get it. And it was a game changer. It was a solid, numbered reality show. And it was a chance to get a contemporary show. It's an opportunity to young-down our audience."

The problem for Wong is that her end goal—of courting a younger, more sophisticated audience—is also potentially her greatest liability. If she changes the network too much, she risks losing her core viewership. Wong described her typical viewer as being a working mother in Middle America who "gets a few spare moments from an insanely crazy day" and wants to "flop down on the couch and watch a two-hour movie by herself" or "catch a comedy in between folding the clothes and making dinner." Wong then adds that Lifetime will never "be edgy or smart." It will never be an HBO or an FX, she insists. "I don't want to imply that the women who watch Lifetime are dumb," she says, "but they're not looking for the next indie film from us. They're looking for good fun escape. Digestible escape."

So while Wong uses one hand to goad her staff into pursuing a younger, hipper audience, she is essentially using the other hand to pull the reins. "I constantly have to remind our programming people [of this] because when you live in this town for a long time you want to be really smart and edgy and sophisticated and your taste can go toward HBO. And you have to remind people, 'Wait a minute. It's the middle of the country that has to like our shows.'"

Balancing these two countervailing interests can prove tricky. Weeks earlier, I talked with Wong in her office in Los Angeles; she was evaluating a pilot for a show, one that represented a stretch from the Lifetime canon. The show had just been market-tested, and the feedback revealed a fatal problem. "One of the characters was way too edgy," Wong explained. "People didn't like it. They really didn't—they got turned off by it."

What was the problem?

"She didn't like having sex with her husband."

After her day of upfronts, Wong arrives at a book-launch party for an essay collection by Lee Woodruff, who is married to Bob Woodruff, the ABC news anchor who was gravely injured in Iraq. The party is at the JWT ad agency which, in true Mad Men fashion, has a 50-foot bar where employees can pound liquor three nights a week. The room pulses with music, and the ceiling oozes a neon blue light. A photographer snaps pictures as Manhattan's media elite shout into one another's ears.

One after another, various people approach Wong, throw their arms up and embrace her ecstatically. An uninformed onlooker might mistake Wong as the party's honoree. First comes documentarian Kayce Freed, Peter Jennings's widow; then Joe Peyronnin, the former president of Fox News; then Susan Zirinsky, a legendary producer who inspired the role Holly Hunter played in Broadcast News. Everyone wants to say hello and congratulate Wong on what she is doing at Lifetime.

In the past year, viewership among women 18 and older went up 24 percent on the Lifetime Movie Network. In the first quarter of 2009, viewership among women 18 to 34 is up 10 percent. The audience for Army Wives grew 15 percent from its first season to its second. Project Runway is set to air on Lifetime starting August 20. And while Lifetime doesn't publicly disclose its profits, it says the company's revenues have reached record highs since Wong arrived.

During one brief interlude, in which no one is hugging Wong, I ask if the fanfare creates pressure on her. If so, does she try to dampen people's meteoric expectations? "You're always managing expectations," she says. "The minute you believe your own hype, you're dead."

Moments later, Lee Woodruff—the party's actual honoree—emerges and greets Wong warmly. Woodruff points at Wong and declares euphorically, so everyone within earshot can hear, "This woman is a supernova."

JAKE HALPERN wrote Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction and is co-author, with Peter Kujawinski, of Dormia, a fantasy novel for young readers.