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Cover story: Lifetime gets real

By Stephanie Goldberg, CNN
updated 10:05 AM EDT, Wed September 28, 2011
"Dance Moms," which was renewed for a second season on Tuesday, reeled in about 1.8 million viewers last episode.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lifetime is not just about made-for-TV movies aimed at women anymore
  • The network is gravitating towards original programming and reality shows
  • Shows like "Dance Moms" and "Russian Dolls" trade on existing reality formats

(CNN) -- Lately, Lifetime has been looking a little different.

No, the network hasn't traded in the made-for-TV love stories that first charmed the network's loyal female viewers. It has, however, adopted a new slew of original programming designed to help Lifetime stay competitive in the age of reality TV.

To that end, stage moms, amateur fashion designers, nannies and criminals have all found a home on the network.

"Lifetime, for years, thrived on reruns and made for TV movies that told women's stories," said Andy Dehnart, the editor of Realityblurred.com. "It makes so much more sense to let real women tell their stories in reality TV shows than scripted shows. Those stories are more accessible and more consequential -- and often more entertaining."

By offering more reality programming, Lifetime is merely bearing witness to what the data continues to show -- unscripted shows bring in viewers.

According to a recent report by The Nielsen Company, reality shows draw the largest share of the U.S. TV audience, 56.4% for the 2010-2011 season, up from 47.9% the year before.

Lifetime has found success with "Dance Moms," a reality show about young dancers and their moms, which was renewed for a second season on Tuesday. The "Toddlers and Tiara's"-like dance show, set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, reeled in about 1.8 million viewers its last episode.

Meanwhile, about 2.4 million people tuned in for "Project Runway" last Thursday, a show which Lifetime acquired in 2009.

"Getting "Project Runway" was a good kick start," Dehnart added. "It helped them figure out what they wanted to be. Networks tend to make this change when it makes sense for them. ... We're still in the early stages of this wave."

"Project Runway" spin-offs, including "Project Runway All Stars" and "Project Accessory," will debut in the coming months.

"America's Supernanny," a new, unscripted series featuring an "American homegrown nanny," and "America's Most Wanted," which the network picked up earlier this month after Fox canceled it, will both air later this year, according to Lifetime's website.

It's not odd to see series like "Dance Moms" and "America's Supernanny," which draw on the formats of other successful shows, appear on a different network, Dehnart said.

"There's all kinds of duplication in reality," he said. "How many Jersey-set shows do we have right now? Probably too many, but if its works and gets the demographic the network needs ... it's just borrowing another format.

It hasn't all been high ratings and devoted audiences, however.

Lifetime has had at least two reality flops. "Roseanne's Nuts," Roseanne Barr's TV comeback, was recently canceled after its first season. The network's answer to "Jersey Shore" -- "Russian Dolls" -- also underwhelmed viewers.

But it's not just about being a contender in the reality game for the network. Formerly the premiere destination for "How I Met Your Mother" and "Desperate Housewives" reruns, Lifetime has made way for all types of new original content in the last few years.

"The Client List" will join scripted dramas like "Drop Dead Diva," which was recently renewed for a fourth season, and "Army Wives," which has been on the air since 2007. Jennifer Love Hewitt will star in and executive produce "The Client List" -- based off the network's 2010 original movie of the same name.

All the new original content is why Rob Sharenow, Lifetime's executive vice president of programming, calls the network a triple threat.

"We program all three major TV genres -- reality, scripted series and scripted movies," Sharenow said. "No other women's brand can say that."

"We used to be dependent on reruns of network shows," he said, adding, "Lifetime movies are legendary -- our legacy and our future."

But that doesn't mean original programming isn't important.

"Original, exciting characters bring exciting TV that people can't get anywhere else," he said.

Originally marketed as "Television for Women," Sharenow said Lifetime's current mantra, "Connect. Play. Share" -- which came to be in 2008 -- better embodies the network's new goal to appeal to everyone.

"I'm trying to make Lifetime acceptable to everybody," he said. "I do want to have shows on the air that don't feel like they're just for women. ... In the past, it felt like a channel that men shouldn't be watching. We want to have shows that have broad appeal that can be watched by anybody."

Which might explain the network's decision to pick up John Walsh's "America's Most Wanted."

"'Americas Most Want definitely has an audience," Dehnart said. It was smart to pick it up. It has some value, too. I don't think it will be a huge hit for them, but I'm sure it will do well."

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