If Project Runway had a needlepoint challenge, the show might find itself with an unlikely contestant. "About a year ago, I started needlepointing," confesses Andrea Wong, CEO of Lifetime Networks. She is perched on a chair in her Los Angeles office, wearing a black Yves Saint Laurent pantsuit. "It completely relaxes me." Well, usually. There was that time she was stitching a cushion for her boyfriend. "I was needlepointing while doing conference calls. It practically killed me."
Wong's coexisting affection for high fashion and homey crafts are the perfect metaphor for her plan to reinvigorate the dowdy, if successful, cable channel. Lifetime has been the top ad-backed female-focused network for years but, before Wong's 2007 arrival, was plagued with a reputation for lowbrow movies like My Stepson, My Lover. Its ratings were falling or flat for five straight years.
"We needed to pull back the curtains and blow fresh air through the whole thing," says Wong, 43. "Bring more energy to it. Make it more contemporary." On August 20 comes the biggest salvo so far in her push to do so: The sixth season of Project Runway, which she hijacked from Bravo, will premiere. It's the clearest sign yet of how the woman who brought Dancing With the Stars to U.S. television intends to restore Lifetime's luster — with a lineup heavy on fun. Says Wong: "We want to be the great escape for women."
Wong's TV career seems like an escape from the life she thought she was destined to live. Growing up in Sunnyvale, California, she decided that she wanted to be Steve Jobs's CMO. ("Apple Computer was down the street," Wong recalls.) She went to MIT, majored in electrical engineering, and yet became a banker. She didn't find her calling until B-school at Stanford, during which she took an internship at NBC. "I sat in the control room of the Today show and fell in love with news," she says. "It had the same energy and immediacy as being on a trading floor did."
She landed a research job on ABC's Primetime Live and quickly got plucked by Bob Iger, then president of ABC and now chief executive of Disney, to help run ABC's special projects. After three years, she felt the need to prove her creative chops and took a lower-level post in ABC's alternative programming department, which oversaw shows such as America's Funniest Home Videos. "There were no rules," Wong says of reality TV in those days. "It was the Wild West."
Which also means it was a backwater to which nobody paid much attention, until Wong started making hits such as The Bachelor. "She really recognized that so much of what drives young women is about transformation," says Susan Lyne, who was ABC's president of entertainment. Wong relentlessly, futilely pitched Lyne, then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, and ABC Entertainment chairman Lloyd Braun a series about people losing weight. "None of us were able to see beyond the idea that this was about losers," Lyne says. "[NBC's] The Biggest Loser is now one of the most successful shows in that genre. She just understands what hooks people."
Lifetime needed some of that. Sure, it had Golden Girls reruns and those unapologetic melodramas ("It's wily-woman-who-kills-her-husband-and-frames-her-boyfriend," says Marketing to Women author Marti Barletta). But the network, a pioneer when it was created by Hearst and Disney 25 years ago, was losing ground to rivals such as TLC and Bravo, which boasted addictive reality shows such as Trading Spaces, Top Chef, and, of course, Project Runway.
In April 2007, Lifetime asked Wong to take charge. Six months later, she made her big move. Runway, the No. 1 reality show on cable among women last year, would move to Lifetime once Bravo's five-season deal was up. It was one of the biggest coups in cable-TV history. "She said, 'Is there any way we could get Runway?' " says Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Co. owns the show. (As Wong tells it, "He indicated there was an opportunity, and we jumped at it.") Weinstein has known Wong since her early ABC days, and always saw her as a visionary. "She's strong enough to say no to me and smart enough to say yes to me," he says.
Both Wong and Weinstein saw how the deal could be a mutual winner. "It was a bit of a gamble," he says, "but she said if the hipsters from Bravo's audience followed us and the housewives on Lifetime could fall in love with us, we would have one of the biggest smash hits of all time on cable TV." They signed a five-year deal for an estimated $150 million — reportedly $400,000 more per episode than Bravo had been paying — and scheduled Runway's Lifetime debut for November 2008.
Then NBC Universal, Bravo's parent, fought back. It filed suit against the Weinstein Co., and won an injunction stopping Lifetime from airing Runway. Finally, in April, the parties settled — Weinstein acknowledged denying NBC Universal its right of first refusal and paid accordingly — and Runway's Lifetime premiere was reset for August. "I've had two bottles of Dom Pérignon sitting in my fridge for a year and a half now," Wong says. "We will not drink these until it airs on Lifetime." (NBC Universal declined to comment.)
Perhaps Wong, who hasn't had a reality hit on Lifetime, shouldn't uncork the bubbly quite yet. Bill Carroll, programming director of the Katz Television Group, says Lifetime's tactic is akin to what the broadcast networks do when they debut a new series post — Super Bowl. "It's an opportunity to bring an audience that hadn't been there," he says. "The question is, Once you get them there, do they stay?"
Lifetime has changed little about the show, other than the location (now L.A., not New York) and producer (Magical Elves, Runway's originator, was replaced by Real World creators Bunim-Murray). Still, the move was an anxious one, not least for Runway's talent. "It was a two-fold anxiety attack — a new network and new producers," says host Tim Gunn. "But my anxieties were placated when I met Andrea. And as someone said to me, 'My DVR doesn't know the difference' " between Bravo and Lifetime.
But the DVR won't automatically record other Lifetime shows, and the channel still has a stigma. After Runway ads began airing, one blogger huffed: "Dangerous and Complicated Assignment No. 1: Handcraft a pair of mom jeans for the Glade lady using Airwick canisters, Swiffer pads, and Lysol."
It won't be easy for Lifetime to make the Runway halo effect work. Even if the show brings its fans and converts some of Lifetime's — "only 4% of Lifetime viewers are cognizant of Runway," says Lifetime marketing head Bob Bibb — and even if the spin-off Models of the Runway (self-explanatory) succeeds, there are still dozens of hours of airtime to fill.
Wong does have one hit, Army Wives, which was developed before her arrival. And she has recruited as Lifetime's new head of programming JoAnn Alfano, who helped develop 30 Rock and Scrubs. The pair are betting heavily on comedy, a genre with few recent hits on any network. All the new shows feature strong women, including comedian Margaret Cho (Drop Dead Diva), The View's Sherri Shepherd (Sherri), and MAD TV's Nicole Sullivan (Rita Rocks). "It's women-empowered," Alfano says, "as opposed to women in peril."
Then there are Lifetime movies, which do at least have brand recognition. "If you have a train wreck of a life," Alfano says wryly, "people will say to you, 'Oh, you're a Lifetime movie.' " To counter that, Wong has reduced the number of films Lifetime makes, cut the corniness, and upped the production values and the talent, such as Sigourney Weaver (in the acclaimed Prayers for Bobby) and Emily Watson (The Memory Keeper's Daughter). But Lifetime still seems to cling to its melodramatic roots. The biopic Coco Chanel, starring Shirley MacLaine, thematically seemed a departure from the old Lifetime — and drew 22 million viewers — but The New York Times griped that it aspired "to the levels of PBS costume drama and camp classicism."
It's especially unusual since Wong is chasing modernity on other fronts. Like virtually everyone in TV, she has seen the future and it is digital. The data driving Wong's strategy: 76% of casual online gamers are women. In the past year, Lifetime has bought two gaming companies, Roiworld.com and ParentsClick Network. Ultimately, its five Web sites will have more than 4,000 games tailored to women. The signs are promising: Lifetime's digital properties had 3.8 million unique users in May, up 100% from a year ago.
Of course, this wouldn't be a Lifetime story without another plot twist. In June, Hearst and Disney said they may merge Lifetime with A&E Television Networks, which they co-own with NBC Universal, the very company from which Wong wrested Project Runway. A&E chief Abbe Raven would head the new group — and be Wong's new boss. Laura Caraccioli-Davis, executive vice president of entertainment at Starcom Mediavest, speculates that Wong could seek a new role at Disney: "They did pick Abbe to be in charge."
Wong dismisses rumors of her exit and has nothing but praise ("smart", "great woman") for Raven. She says the consolidation would free her to "focus on driving the Lifetime brand."
That makes sense to Alfano, who, during a meeting, teases Wong about being "the perfect Lifetime viewer." Wong has just told Alfano about a weekend visit from two B-school roommates. She was glad to see them, and glad to see the backs of them. "By the time they left Sunday afternoon, it was time for me to take a bath," Wong says, exhaling deeply. "I turned on the Lifetime Movie Network and watched Derailed [with Jennifer Aniston and Clive Owen] ... for the fifth time. It was the perfect escape."
A version of this article appeared in the September 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.