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Chance of a Lifetime

After barely a year, JoAnn Alfano as transformed the once-bland ‘television for women’ into a fresh, creative, ratings-nabbing network … and quite possibly the gayest channel on television.
By Steven Foster

Lifetime exec JoAnn Alfano

“I always said Lifetime was television for women . . . and my friends,” admits Lifetime programming executive JoAnn Alfano in her first-ever interview with the gay press—“. . . my friends and my friend Kevin who is the most avid Lifetime viewer of anyone I know. When I got the job, he knew more about the network programming than I did.”

Alfano’s pal might have also mentioned just how stale that programming had become, with its tendency to relentlessly air reruns of homo-friendly comedies and women-done-wrong movies of the weak. Granted, we love our Golden Girls and Will & Grace reruns as much as the next gay, and there is a certain pervy pleasure in watching hot has-beens from the Jenny Garth generation take revenge on abusive husbands. But really, was this the best Lifetime could do?

With ad budgets shrinking like a sweater in a dryer, and competitors We and Oxygen breathing down Lifetime’s practically geriatric neck, CEO Andrea Wong had to put some serious muscle behind the channel’s much-needed makeover—and do it faster than a reality competition elimination challenge. It appeared such a change was finally happening with programming whiz Susanne Daniels. The topical, intelligent drama Army Wives was a critical and commercial hit, causing both advertising agencies to take notice and Jill Q. Public to set her TiVo. Rita Rocks signaled a refreshing foray into original scripted comedy. Then, the coup de grace. The ladies at Lifetime showed some serious

Heidi Klum (l) with guest star Rebecca Romijn in Project Runway.

chutzpah by stealing Bravo crown jewel Project Runway.

But the resuscitating breath of fresh air suddenly seemed more like a shock-gasp in a Nora Roberts plot.

First, Daniels abruptly announced her departure, sending industry tongues wagging about female infighting in the halls of power. Reporters seem to bring up this pervasive and patently offensive sexist view at a moment’s notice. It’s the journalistic equivalent of blaming a woman’s bad mood on her period; wrong at best, insulting at worst. While it probably makes for juicy copy to insinuate that Wong and Daniels tussled, it strains believability that Daniels would happily send Alfano into the Lifetime lioness den.

“Susanne Daniels was a friend of mine, and I called her to wish her well,” Alfano recalls. “Then she said, ‘Hey, what are you doin’? Do you wanna go for this job?’ It hadn’t crossed my mind until that point, and then I was like, Uh, yeah. Okay, yeah, I do!

Alfano met with Wong and the two hit it off. “I loved so many of the things she had to say and what she was doing with the company. I think we had a really good simpatico.”

But just as the Emmy-winning, former 30 Rock producer showed up on the job, the second plot point surfaced. NBC/Universal promptly sued to keep Runway’s gorgeous, profitable legs strutting on their runway. The public rarely cares about such legal haggling, but Runway was such a cultural phenom that the ensuing drama was as closely monitored as Michele Obama’s sleeve length.

“Yeah, that happened right after I came here,” says Alfano about the Runway nightmare. “We produced the show at that time and we continued to do so, because I didn’t know how it would turn out. But separate from that, I just focused on everything else.”

Everything else involved Alfano ensuring the network didn’t lose precious momentum gained from Army Wives. Plus, there were other non-Runway projects in the pipeline she had to foster, ones handpicked by her predecessor, not herself, which is sort of like babysitting other people’s kids while you’re birthing your own. And speaking of the new progeny, Alfano’s deliveries needed to fit comfortably into the Lifetime family, while hopefully broadening the network’s reach without scaring off the core audience. No small chore.

Still, like one of those former Lifetime movies Alfano and company are trying to get away from, the movie doesn’t have a downer ending, and the heroine is destined to succeed.

“We’re about victors not victims, if you will,” Alfano affirms. “And women in power. Not women in peril.”

Cue music. Happy music, that is.

The Project Runway debacle was settled and the show debuted with a staggering 45 percent increase over the previous season five debut on Bravo. And that’s after combating a controversial location move from its haute home in New York to the fashionably questionable environs of LA, not to mention the Internet fiasco of having most search engine results for Runway taking you to Bravo’s website, not Lifetime’s. Whatever. An audience of 4.2 million people didn’t have any trouble finding their fashion fix on its new home. So naturally, Alfano is experiencing a little relief.

“Oh, lots of relief,” she admits from her office in Los Angeles. “I’m so excited for it to finally hit the air and for people to see it. See how good the show is and enjoy it. We’ve had it in the can for quite awhile.”

Other preexisting products in the Lifetime cupboard are holding their own. Respectable numbers kept former Mad TV star and gay fave Nicole Sullivan’s Rita Rocks on the air. And Army Wives continued to perform, though its season three bow lost more than a million viewers from last year’s highly touted benchmark. Off-net rights to Grey’s Anatomy and Medium start stripping in September, perhaps easing some of the heavy rotations of been there/seen that Reba reruns. But it’s the new slate, the one spearheaded by Alfano, that is transforming Lifetime from dowdy do-gooder feel-good to a hipper, smarter, younger channel. It’s not gay by choice so much as it’s increasingly chosen by gays.

Truly, where else is the rainbow coalition to go? Logo’s parent MTV is so tightfisted they’re forced to grab bargain basement acquisitions featuring Internet “stars” Jeffrey and Cole, a long way from the wickedly inspired satire of Rick & Steve and Rosie O’Donnell-backed Sketch Show of Logo’s glory days. And the once unstoppable Bravo has run out of gas, now sucking so hard on their program pipe, there’s barely a fume left in the tank. Seriously, even the spinoffs of spinoffs have spinoffs. The most heinous example being the umpteenth Housewives regurgitation, slapping together B-roll outtakes for yawn-inducing director’s cut, and then giving homo camera hog Andy Cohen his own interview hour with the peach-holding harpies.

That leaves Alfano and company to slip into the void with one of the most brilliant strategies on cable: keep the loyal core base of women, but open their net just a little with smarter, sharper programming, attracting a more lucrative share of the advertiser-friendly, 18-35 market, while simultaneously seducing the freespending gays who, for the most part, have the same taste.

“We just want to be number one with women 18 to 49. That’s our most focused goal, and then beyond that, obviously, it’s a broader reach of women. And then ? beyond  that, yes, total viewers.” But, she admits happily, “We welcome men to the party. We’re glad to have ’em!”

Brooke Elliott (l) and Margaret Cho in Drop Dead Diva.

Look no further for the perfection of that strategy than in Lifetime’s latest hit, Drop Dead Diva, a critical darling that garners ratings as attractive (and plus-sized) as its charming lead, Brooke Elliot, in a star-making performance.

Diva was a script that was in the community. When I came here I produced a number of pilots and I chose Diva as a series,” Alfano explains, voice more humble than haughty. “I read it and loved it. But the broadcast networks had passed on it, and it was such a perfect fit in terms of being absolutely right for this audience.”

In lesser hands, the tired soulswapper plot conceit would be just that. But in the hands of Oscar-winning producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron of Chicago and Hairspray fame, Diva positively sings. And the sometimes fierce duet between creator Josh Berman and Alfano only helps the show hit the high notes.

“He was a very young programming executive at NBC studios when I worked there and I trained him, of all things. So Josh and I have known each other a very, very long time. And the craziness of me being in this position and him being the writer/creator of this series and doing it together, it’s that kind of kismet that feels fantastic for both of us. We have a shorthand, and we also have an ability to get really mad at each other and it be okay.”

Next month unveils another refreshingly non-anorexic—and, this time, non-white—lead, this one featuring The View talking head and 30 Rock star Sherri Shepherd.

“It’s all part of moving the network forward, just trying to broaden the scope and make it more contemporary, more real, more modern, more relatable, but at the same time not changing our brand in a way that our core audience would reject,” relates Alfano. “We want to be inclusive of everyone.”

Even Alfano’s new off-net acquisitions show stunning savvy. Alfano caused an industry ruckus when she scooped everyone, grabbing the mega hit How I Met Your Mother, and before the dust settled on that deal, she snagged The New Adventures of Old Christine, hit series featuring out-gay stars Neil Patrick Harris and Wanda Sykes, respectively.

Upcoming Lifetime movies have nary a Knots Landing vixen in sight. The network just aired the goofily charming Acceptance starring Joan Cusack, and will soon unveil Julia Ormand in The Wronged Man, produced by Hollywood heavyweight Gale Anne Hurd, and Twelve Men of Christmas with Kristin Chenoweth. Continuing to grab overlooked gems, Alfano lifted the Georgia O’Keefe biopic, starring and produced by Joan Allen, after HBO passed.

“I think what brought our eye to that project is, more than just about Georgia O’Keefe being a luminary as a painter, is that she has a really interesting love story in terms of her life and her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz. That is what the focus of the movie is and why it just felt really, really right for us.” Alfano’s passion grows palpable. “It is an example of the type of movie that we’re trying to step up and do—where we’re willing to spend more money and to attract greater talent, in the interest of moving the network forward.”

Ryan Kelly (l) and Sigourney Weaver in Prayers for Bobby.
Malcolm McDowell (l) and Shirley MacLaine in Coco Chanel.

That investment is paying off. Two recent films, Prayers for Bobby and Coco Chanel, racked up Emmy nominations, along with nods for stars Sigourney Weaver and Shirley MacLaine. Not bad for a channel whose production budget on a film is probably half of what HBO spends to simply market one of theirs.

Maybe the new, hipper, sexier, have-the-cake-and-eat-it-too slate is just a reflection of the woman in charge. In addition to having her say on Lifetime, Alfano’s not shy about having a life.

“I try to be home somewhere in the sevens because I have twin two-year-old girls.” Alfano pauses a moment, perhaps because she realizes how all this sounds. Taking a new high-stakes, high-pressure job at a major cable network. And doing it all with twins? The Lifetime movie coincidences keep piling up higher than diapers in a Genie.

“I didn’t give birth,” she demurs. “I have to say that. My partner gave birth. We have fraternal twin girls and they’re fantastic. Being a mom is great. And I work at a company that’s fantastic. There are a lot of parents here, so it’s a very supportive environment.”

Then, in true mogul fashion, Alfano confesses. “Either fortunately or unfortunately, however you look at it, I don’t ever really get off work. You’re on a Blackberry, after you put the kids down at night you answer a lot of e-mails and such, and it keeps you tethered in that kind of way. But,” she adds, “it also gives you a freedom to balance your life out.”

A Lifetime character couldn’t have said, or done, it better.


Ste7en Foster

Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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