The real story behind “My Life is a Lifetime Movie”
A TV series inspired by a catchphrase uttered by exasperated and jilted women premieres on U.S. cable network Lifetime this week.
My Life Is A Lifetime Movie, launching tonight (October 17) at 10 p.m. EST, mixes first-person testimonials with dramatic recreations to put a cheeky reality spin on the network’s long-running series of made-for-television movies about women in peril.
Produced by New York-based DiGa, the production company founded last year by ex-MTV programming honchos Liz Gateley and Tony DiSanto, the 7 x 60-minutes series is part of the female-skewing network’s wider strategy of attracting a younger demographic.
“Lifetime is evolving and one of the steps in our evolution is to be able to look at ourselves and have a little fun with our own brand,” Rob Sharenow, the net’s exec VP of programming and an exec producer on the series, tells realscreen. “We definitely saw it as an opportunity to announce to the world, ‘Hey we’re acknowledging the brand and taking it in a new direction’ – contemporizing it.”
The Lifetime movie brand, which inspired the spin-off channel Lifetime Movie Network in 1998, tends to attract an older female audience, so Sharenow is hoping its “delicious” self-referential conceit and hybrid reality format will draw a younger viewership. The idea for My Life Is A Lifetime Movie came to Gateley during an informal meeting with Lifetime programming boss Nancy Dubuc at a bar in Midtown Manhattan not long after she and DiSanto had left MTV to start their own company.
“A week before meeting with Nancy Dubuc, I was, sadly, sitting down with a girlfriend who was telling me how her life had fallen apart,” recalls Gateley. “She found out that her husband had this double life going on and she knew I used to work at Lifetime so she said, ‘Liz! My life is a Lifetime movie!’”
Gateley relayed the anecdote to Dubuc, the network’s then newly-appointed president and general manager, and suggested taking real stories of women that have discovered their husband has six lovers, or their daughter is sleeping with their boyfriend, and retell it in the heightened melodramatic style of a Lifetime movie.
Dubuc liked the idea immediately and invited the duo to formally pitch to her programming team. “It was one of those ideas you come up with in a conversation,” says Gateley, whose reality credits at MTV included The Hills, Laguna Beach, Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant. “It literally was one of those moments – it was the light bulb of wanting to help out a friend not thinking that I was coming up with a pitch that would become a full series. Everything I’ve created came to me in that type of a moment.”
DiGa developed the idea into a format that blends the interviews in the style of a network news magazine such as 20/20 and Dateline with soap operatic re-enactments. Gateley worked with The Hills and Laguna Beach director of photography Hisham Abed to come up with a visual style guide for the series that took the Dateline-style treatment to a cinematic level.
For the first seven episodes, DiGa searched for salacious small town stories that either hadn’t been covered on television or hadn’t been covered within the past five years. Gateley came up with five criteria that would determine what type of stories would be suitable.
One big one is that the stories must have happy and hopeful endings. A second is that the drama should somehow imperil a woman’s home life.
“What Lifetime movies are always about is the nest and a woman protecting the nest,” says Gateley. “A woman, as she’s going through this horrible, horrible ordeal, also has to keep the family going.”
The first episode primarily focuses on the story of Jodi Barrus, a 33-year-old Iowa high school teacher who was accused of having sex with a student and put on trial for sexual exploitation in 2010.
The show cuts between interviews with Barrus, her husband, her lawyers and gossipy townsfolk, and re-enactments that play up the sordid details using good-looking actors and made-for-TV flourishes, like lingering shots of the actor playing Barrus’s 18-year-old accuser sauntering through the school hallways in slow motion.
The episode’s second tale is that of Ana Margarita Martinez, a Miami woman who discovered via a CNN report that she had unwittingly married a Cuban spy.
Balancing the cheeky tone with the gravity of each woman’s situation was a challenge for the production team. “By no means am I saying we’re making fun of the stories. We’re winking at the audience saying we know you love these movies, we do too, and they do celebrate everyday women,” says Gateley.
“All of these women want to set the record straight and they want to tell their story,” she adds. “That was a huge appeal.”
Since taking the programming reins for Lifetime in 2011, Dubuc has sought to attract a younger audience to the network by ordering an increasing amount of unscripted fare, such as Dance Moms, Drop Dead Diva and Army Wives, in addition to scripted series such as The Client List and original movies, such as a remake of Steel Magnolias, which drew 6.5 million viewers earlier this month.
According to parent company A+E Networks, Lifetime’s viewership is up year-to-date 11% in adults 18-49 and up 4% in adults 25-54. Among women 18-49, Lifetime is up 17%, and up 8% in W25-54 versus year-to-date in 2011.
My Life Is A Lifetime Movie also marks DiGa’s first full series to make it to broadcast. The company’s production and development slate also includes Logo series The Baby Wait, which premieres at the end of the month; a music project for MTV about sibling bands starring country singer Randy Jackson; Country Love Story for CMT; Celebrity Yard Sale starring Lance Bass for Lifetime; and a recently greenlit series for the History channel which is still under wraps.