Nearly four decades ago, Lifetime Channel launched as a woman-centered network airing mostly talk shows and syndicated series. Four years later, the whole cable network changed, premiering its first TV movie, “Memories of a Murder.” The 1990 movie, starring Nancy Allen, set the tone for what was to come, with a plot about a stepmother who gets amnesia and can’t remember why a psychopath is trying to kill her family.
That sort of story worked for the network in the ratings; while Lifetime dabbled in other types of films — Reese Witherspoon’s “Wildflower” came the following year — they realized what their audience wanted.
“Lifetime’s most successful movies all have stories and characters that people, namely women, can connect to and root for,” says exec VP and head of programming Elaine Frontain Bryant. “People want to see themselves reflected on screen — so even if it’s an outlandish tale, there’s something in there that feels personal.”
Fast-forward to 2023 and Lifetime has garnered 63 Emmy nominations, eight Golden Globe nominations and 20 Critics Choice nods. This year, Lifetime aired its 500th movie — one of their “Ripped From the Headlines” genre, “Murdaugh Murders: The Movie.” It came at the perfect time, on the heels of Netflix’s two-season docuseries on Alex Murdaugh, a man accused and convicted of murdering his son and wife. The trial was broadcast across the country.
“This story immediately struck us as very much being at the intersection of Lifetime’s brand — fascinating with so many twists and turns, while also captivating the nation. We were all riveted and the trial was such a phenomenon that when the movie team was developing it, there was so much material, it became a two-part movie,” Frontain Bryant says. “We quickly decided it had to be the tentpole of Lifetime’s fall ‘Ripped From the Headlines’ slate and to be honest, as we looked at the scheduling of the movie, we came to realize it happened to be Lifetime’s 500th original movie. So it was a bit of a happy accident that this incredible story ended up to be Lifetime’s milestone 500th.”
Timeliness was on their side with the Murdaugh case but, as senior VP of movies Tia Maggini says, that’s only part of it: “We pursue timely stories that have captured our audience’s attention, but focus specifically on stories that our audience connects with on an emotional level, stories that transcend the moment.”
The “cherry on top” of the project was the casting of Bill Pullman as the lead, says Frontain Bryant. “He played Alex Murdaugh so masterfully that he’s already generating awards buzz for his performance, nailing the complexity of this entire story,” she says.
The complexities, however, are something the network has always been able to succeed in.
In 2012, as the network underwent changes in leadership, they debuted another major hit: the powerful, all-Black reimagining of “Steel Magnolias.” Variety gave the TV movie a very positive review: “This version of ‘Steel Magnolias’ — produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who worked with [‘Steel Magnolias’ star Queen] Latifah on ‘Chicago’ — makes few missteps. It’s also hard to think of many stories with more perfect-for-Lifetime emotion in zeroing in on the mother-daughter bond.”
“Steel Magnolias” was a departure for the network — and it worked, garnering more than six million viewers.
“We’re committed to letting women tell their stories themselves, their way,” says Maggini. “We care deeply about delivering diverse storytelling and hiring and empowering authentic voices.”
The cable network not only secured a true-crime audience, but also fed a thirst for those craving an uplifting story. It’s no surprise, in that case, to see the major success they have by rolling out new, original holiday films each year as part of their “It’s a Wonderful Lifetime” franchise. In fact, they debuted their first holiday movie, “Ebbie,” in 1995.
“We look for characters that our audience can empathize with and relate to,” adds Maggini, “Stories that provide a rollercoaster ride of emotion.”
It’s hard to say what doesn’t work for the network. When looking at their most successful movies over the course of 40 years, it’s a mixed bag — from biopics like “The Fantasia Barrino Story: Life Is Not a Fairy Tale,” “Toni Braxton: Unbreak My Heart,” “Whitney” and “Anna Nicole”; to the critically acclaimed, Emmy and SAG-nominated “Flowers in the Attic” and fan-favorite “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax.” Even 1995’s “Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story” still remains one of the most-watched of all time.
“We’re always looking for the best stories to tell — whether that’s true crime, biopics or holiday magic — and we go for the stories that will capture the attention of the audience,” explains Frontain Bryant. “Lifetime, having been in the movie business this long, is more often than not informed by audience desires and is a reflection of what they care about and want to see.”
Inside their “Ripped From the Headlines” true crime bucket, they also have grown sub-
franchises, leaning into very sensitive topics.
“‘Girl in the Basement,’ ‘Girl in the Bunker’ and ‘Girl in the Box’ were difficult stories to tell, they were also stories of resilience. It’s no longer women in peril. It’s women who survive and turn from victim to victor,” Frontain Bryant says.
This year, “Black Girl Missing,” led by Garcelle Beauvais, put a spotlight on the differences in how the media treats the story of a missing white girl versus the story of a missing Black girl.
“It sparked a lot of conversation. Its ability to resonate so deeply with audiences gave way to additional focus and development to sharing stories that tackle tough issues and help raise awareness,” says Frontain Bryant. “Similarly, within the biopics, Lifetime has the incredible ‘I Am’ franchise where we partner with our subjects to tell their stories their way like Elizabeth Smart, Lorena Bobbitt and even Victoria Gotti.”
The content will continue to evolve as the television landscape does and will remain a competitor for other networks and streamers, she explains.
“Lifetime knows how to make great movies in cost-efficient ways and continues to attract incredible award-winning talent who want to be a part of the storytelling and the Lifetime community,” says Frontain Bryant, who notes that the network’s execution is much quicker than many of their competitors. “With the cable landscape changing so rapidly, we are also constantly evolving the way we do things to attract viewers, too, and looking at opportunities that allow our movies to be seen not only by a linear audience.”
She points to “The Girl Who Escaped: The Kara Robinson Story” as an example, as they worked alongside Robinson in order to tell her story — and then she became the face of the promotion for the movie across social media.
Through “the power of TikTok,” the trailer went viral and allowed viewers without cable to buy the movie on Amazon Prime Video or iTunes. It became their top movie of the year on-demand in transactions and revenue.
While the ratings aren’t fully in yet for the 500th movie, digital viewing of “Murdaugh Murders” was “86% above the network’s tentpole average,” says Frontain Bryant, “which goes to show, people will always seek out good storytelling and award-worthy performances no matter the platform.”