Can’t stop to cheer now

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Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Any other television executive would have been gloating.

It had been a banner week for Andrea Wong, chief executive of Lifetime Networks, who stunned the industry April 7 by announcing that she had snatched hit cable show “Project Runway” from Bravo.

“It’s so, so exciting to tell everyone this show is coming to Lifetime,” said Wong. But she admitted that she hadn’t had much time to celebrate. When the news broke, she was ensconced in long-range planning meetings in Los Angeles with her staff. She then squeezed in tea with “Project Runway’s” Heidi Klum at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills and attended the red carpet premiere of Lifetime’s “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” before racing back to New York, where she held a series of programming presentations for advertisers.

“Sometimes the people around me will say, ‘Hey, you should celebrate, relax, enjoy yourself, feel good about what’s happened to date,’” said Wong over a glass of Chardonnay at a Midtown club Friday evening. “Because I’m like, ‘OK, what’s the next thing we have to do?’ ”


Since she took over Lifetime and its sister movie channel last April after the ouster of former Chief Executive Betty Cohen, Wong has been working to reinvigorate the once top-rated basic cable network. The women’s channel was widely viewed as a tired brand when Wong arrived from ABC, where she had been in charge of reality and late-night programming for three years. Ratings had flattened out, and the audience was aging.

“I really love the challenge, so I’ve relished every second of it, really diving in and rolling up my sleeves and saying, OK, what do we need?” Wong said.

Her immediate goal: to flip the Lifetime “women in peril” stereotype on its head.

“It’s about turning people’s perceptions of Lifetime and making them see that it’s really about women overcoming great obstacles and triumphing,” Wong said.

“We’ve got this great brand that is incredibly resonant with women,” she added. “We want to take that and evolve it to a much more contemporary, relevant place.”

In “Project Runway,” Lifetime has a potent weapon. In four seasons, the hit fashion competition has spawned a passionate fan base and made stars of unknown designers.

Bravo is not letting it go without a fight. Parent company NBC Universal filed a lawsuit last week against the Weinstein Co., the show’s producer, claiming the company violated its right of first refusal by striking a deal with Lifetime. (At a Lifetime luncheon Monday, executive producer Harvey Weinstein said he believes that he and NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker will be friends again once “I finish my servitude of cleaning his house, driving him to work every day, baby-sitting the kids.”)


Wong declined to comment on the suit but said she is confident the show will appear on her network in November.

“It’s a perfect fit on Lifetime, and I believe Lifetime is the place to actually have it grow,” said Wong, noting that the cable channel is available in 7.5 million more homes than Bravo and attracts more female viewers.

Wong’s ability to see both the creative and business opportunities in a show like “Project Runway” is what made her so well-suited for the task of reviving Lifetime, said Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney-ABC Television Group. (Lifetime is a joint venture of the Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Corp.)

“One of the things I admire most about Andrea is not only does she has vision, but she also brings a great strategic focus to the job,” Sweeney said.

Wong traces her affinity for popular culture to her “normal, middle-class” childhood in Silicon Valley. The eldest of five children, she devoured shows like “The Brady Bunch,” “Love Boat” and “Three’s Company.”


Engineering career

But she never considered television as a career. “When you grow up in Silicon Valley and you’re good at math, everybody tells you you should be an engineer,” she said.


So Wong studied electrical engineering at MIT and then did a stint as an investment banker before going to Stanford Business School. During a summer job at NBC, she got to sit in the control room of the “Today” show one morning.

She was hooked and decided she wanted to be a news producer. After graduation, Wong took a job as a researcher for ABC’s “Primetime Live.” When Robert Iger -- then the president of ABC, now the president and chief executive of Disney -- was looking for an assistant with an MBA to groom, she got the call.

“I was so fortunate, because I really got to learn how a television network works,” said Wong, who worked for Iger for four years.

In 1998, she took a post in the entertainment division developing reality shows and specials. Within a few years, she was put in charge of ABC’s alternative and late-night fare, making her mark with such wish-fulfillment shows as “The Bachelor,” “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and “Dancing With the Stars.”

When she arrived at Lifetime last April, Wong said, she was delighted to find that she and entertainment president Susanne Daniels “have almost exactly the same taste.”

One of her first acts as chief executive was to order up a major marketing campaign for the Kim Delaney drama “Army Wives.” The show went on to be the most successful original series in Lifetime history.


Still, overall viewership remained flat in 2007, with the network averaging about 1.5 million viewers in prime time. But female viewers ages 18 to 34 spiked by 14%, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Both Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network have notched ratings milestones in the last year. LMN’s “The Capture of the Green River Killer” was its most-watched program ever. “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” drew 5.8 million viewers Saturday, Lifetime’s most-watched movie in 13 years.

Wong is now trying to build on those successes. On Monday, the network unveiled seven drama projects under consideration to pair with “Army Wives,” which returns June 8. Among them is “Drop Dead Diva,” created by “CSI’s” Josh Berman, about a spoiled actress who dies and is reincarnated in the body of a schlumpy lawyer.


New comedies

Three comedy projects are in the works, including single mom tale “Burnt Toast,” based on the book by Teri Hatcher. And the network is developing cooking and dating reality shows to pair with “Project Runway” and “How to Look Good Naked,” a makeover show hosted by “Queer Eye’s” Carson Kressley.

Wong is especially focused on Lifetime’s signature movies. In an effort to upgrade the quality, she has spent much of the last year personally lobbying producers who usually would not think to bring their projects to the cable channel. Upcoming films feature Shirley MacLaine as Coco Chanel and Kelly Preston in “The Tenth Circle,” based on the Jodi Picoult novel. And the network will be the first to adapt the novels of bestselling crime author Patricia Cornwell; two of her books are being made into movies for 2009.

“We’re really trying to be a first stop for filmmakers and talent, and to be in the same sentence as Showtime and HBO,” Wong said. “We’re the biggest game in town when it comes to TV movies, so we should be that destination.”