One day after upfront, Cohen exits Lifetime

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Betty Cohen, president and CEO of Lifetime Entertainment Services, announced her resignation from the women's cable channel Wednesday. The move comes one day after taking the stage at the company's upfront presentation in New York.

Sources said Andrea Wong, executive vp alternative programming, specials and late-night at ABC Entertainment, who is well-liked by top Walt Disney Co. executives, is expected to be named as Cohen's successor.

Cohen is leaving after a two-year tenure at Lifetime, during which the network has seen its ratings fall. Competing channels including TNT and USA Network have kept Lifetime out of the top spot it occupied several years ago in the primetime cable ratings, and few original additions to the schedule have found traction.

The news caps several weeks of intense speculation about an executive shake-up at Lifetime. It's understood that Cohen still had some time left on her contract.

In a statement, Cohen cited her interest in taking on "new challenges" as one reason for her departure.

"Having just shepherded the company through this year's upfront presentation with a fantastic slate of original programming that advertisers and media buyers responded to enthusiastically, I felt that the time was right for this transition," she said.

The Walt Disney Co. and the Hearst Corp., which own Lifetime in a 50-50 venture, issued a joint statement.

"Saying goodbye to a trusted and admired colleague is never easy, but we respect Betty's decision to move on at this time," said Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC TV Group, and John Conomikes, director of the Hearst Corp. "We are very grateful for her dedication and contributions to Lifetime over the past two years and wish her our best in all her future endeavors."

When Cohen spoke to ad buyers and clients at Tuesday's upfront presentation at the Grand Hyatt in Midtown Manhattan, she gave no indication that she was on her way out. She made brief remarks at the beginning of the event, praising the efforts of Lifetime president of entertainment Susanne Daniels and the 31% increase in programming investment for the 2007-08 season.

Looking at a two-minute clip of Lifetime's programming, Cohen said, "Honestly, it makes me very proud of how much momentum we've gained on all fronts."

Cohen is a veteran of the cable industry, having spent 14 years at Turner Broadcasting System, where she was instrumental in the launch of Cartoon Network. Her current reign at Lifetime was her second stint there. She was its first managing senior producer of on-air promotion, having been a writer-producer of on-air promotion at Cable Health Network when it merged with cable network Daytime in 1984 to form Lifetime.

Cohen's resignation comes just one day before her two-year anniversary at Lifetime; she had been tapped to take over the role previously held by Carole Black. She tapped Daniels to join the network in September 2005, which was followed by a shake-up of network's programming, including the cancellation of such drama series as "Strong Medicine" and "Missing." It's unclear what Cohen's departure will mean for Daniels, whose own future at the network has been long subject to speculation.

Last year, Lifetime launched a new comedy series, "Lovespring International," and a new drama, "Angela's Eyes," both of which failed to connect with viewers. Neither did reality entry "Cheerleader Nation" and this year's "Gay, Straight or Taken." The network ended 2006 down 12% in total viewers in primetime — coming in as the fifth-ranked cable network — and also down in the key adults demos of 18-34 (off 22%), 18-49 (16%) and 25-54 (14%).

Next up, Lifetime is taking an ambitious approach to launching three new drama series in the summer: "Army Wives" debuts June 3, followed by "Side Order of Life" and "State of Mind" on July 15.

Paul J. Gough in New York and Andrew Wallenstein in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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