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Lifetime's Susanne Daniels on Making Movies, Surviving the Strike and Writing Her Hot Industry Tell-All, "Season Finale"

February 28, 2008

Published: February 28, 2008 at 05:48 AM GMT
Last Updated: February 28, 2008 at 05:48 AM GMT

Now in her third year as president of entertainment for Lifetime Networks, former WB entertainment president Susanne Daniels is also the co-author (with Variety's Cynthia Littleton) of the recently published book Season Finale, about the rise and fall of The WB and UPN. It's a must-read for anyone who worked in, with or around the television business from 1995-2006, when the two mini-networks struggled to build their brands, find their audiences and survive against mounting pressures from inside and outside their respective corporations. TV fans who fondly recall the series that propelled The WB into the heart of popular culture, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek, 7th Heaven, Gilmore Girls, Felicity, Everwood and Angel, might also enjoy reading about the behind the scenes struggles to bring those shows to television.

Daniels recently talked with me about the challenges she faced at The WB, her concerns about The CW, her reasons for writing Season Finale and her current work for Lifetime Networks, which includes overseeing the development and production of approximately 30 movies per year, getting last year's summer hit Army Wives back on track after the WGA strike, strengthening the network's daytime schedule and much, much more. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Ed Martin: I was struck while reading Season Finale by the deep emotional connection you and your colleagues at The WB had to the network and its shows. I think advertisers and television journalists felt the same way, and that a lot of them still miss The WB.

Susanne Daniels: That's what really motivated me to write this book. It was an emotional journey. It was such a meaningful and intense nine years that I was a part of The WB. Writing the book literally gave me the closure that I think I was seeking.

EM: I sensed reading the book that during the life of the network there was always some lingering doubt or question in the air about whether or not --

SD: We would survive! Yeah. That was really hard to deal with. I couldn't attract major show runners who feared that the network wouldn't be around for enough time to get their shows to syndication.

EM: Was that the case all of the time you were there, including during what I would call the glory years of Buffy and Dawson?

SD: Yes. It was constant. The rumors from reporters, and internally and externally. I remember having to fight hard for Sony to get behind Dawson's Creek with us, really having to fight to convince them the network would be around. I'm a little murky on it, but I think the rumor at that particular time was that Warner Bros. wanted to buy NBC and they were going to shut us down.

EM: Where were you on January 24, 2006, when you first heard the news about The WB, UPN and The CW?

SD: I can't remember why, but I do remember for some reason I had gotten to the office unusually early that morning. I was the first person here around 7 a.m. The phone rang and it was (WB chairman) Garth Ancier. He was calling to tell me the announcement was about to happen.

EM: What was your reaction?

SD: I had two reactions. My initial reaction was, wasn't there something they could have done other than having to do this? Why lose everything The WB had built up as a brand? Couldn't it become a cable channel? It seemed such a shame to me that they had to blow up the brand to become The CW in this partnership. My second reaction was, I called Cynthia Littleton and said, “We have the ending to our book.” I wanted to know the story of how they covertly put The CW together and kept the secret until they made the announcement.

EM: When had you begun working with Cynthia on the book?

SD: It was at least a year prior to that.

EM: In the book you point out that losing Buffy the Vampire Slayer to UPN was very painful for you.

SD: It was one of the nails in the coffin in terms of my leaving. I fought against it. For me, letting Buffy go meant diluting our brand. Once UPN could attach itself to that show, which was everything The WB stood for, it was over. I couldn't live with my “enemy,” which is how I saw them, having that show. It was early 2001 that we let the show go. I left in June 2001. I resigned as president of entertainment. I officially became a consultant. I still had an office at The WB. I had a two-year consulting deal.

EM: What goes through your mind today when you watch or read about The CW?

SD: I'm worried about The CW. I would like it to last because I like competition. It's healthy for the industry. There are more outlets for writers and producers and directors and more creativity. Also, I contributed toward the building of that network and I would like it to continue, otherwise, somewhere on my resume it will read like the Dumont network.

EM: Was there anything about writing Season Finale that surprised you?

SD: Yes! I did not ever expect in my lifetime to empathize and feel for the people who worked at UPN. I didn't realize the extent of the conflict and hardship and trouble that they went through on their side. Working on Season Finale I learned how difficult it was for them. It always looked easier for them somehow from where I was sitting. They had Star Trek! My perception was that Paramount was behind them in the beginning while we struggled a lot with Warner Bros. I talk a lot about that in the book, the conflict with Les Moonves not having control. Warner Bros. wasn't really very supportive as a television studio at first. From my vantage point I was angry, jealous and competitive -- and then working on this book I saw UPN in a very different way. I appreciated their struggle and their work on a different level.

EM: You went from The WB, where you were part of a team that literally grew a network, to Lifetime, which was a very well established network that had been around more than 20 years when you arrived. What was that transition like?

SD: When we started The WB we had to build a brand. Ultimately we found our way and were able to define and go after young adults and young women at a time when Fox had abandoned them. If you look back at the history of Lifetime, this is a brand that has evolved, too. It started as a medical channel. One of the reasons they hired me was they knew the brand had to evolve further. They knew it had gotten a little stale and I think they were hoping that I would come in and develop programming that would freshen the brand and make it feel relevant again. I think Army Wives did that. Hopefully Your Mama Don't Dance [which debuts tomorrow night at 9 p.m.] will continue that trend.

EM: How were you impacted by the WGA strike?

SD: We were fortunate as a business to not get badly hurt by it. Our head of production flagged a potential strike over a year ago. We developed a lot of scripts, locked them, and as a result we have our entire movie slate in place for '08. We were working on those movies during the strike. We also have a number of reality series in development and production, so it was fine. One thing the strike did effect was Army Wives. We wanted to bring it back in March, but instead we are going to have it back in June. We have 19 episodes in season two. Most will play in June, July and August, and then we are going to do some holiday episodes.

EM: Will you introduce any new scripted series this summer?

SD: Possibly a comedy. We're in pre-production and casting on two half-hour comedy pilots [Libertyville, with Christine Ebersole, and Rita Rocks].

EM: How many movies will you have this year?

SD: Over 30 original movies for Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network.

EM: It's as if you are running a movie studio.

SD: I don't know why we're under the radar, but it is that way! I love it because I get to work on so many different kinds of things. In April we have The Memory Keeper's Daughter, based on Kim Edwards' novel that was on the bestseller lists for over 80 weeks, starring Dermot Mulroney, Emily Watson and Gretchen Mol. Heather Locklear is doing Flirting with 40, a Christmas holiday movie for us. Kelly Preston is in The Tenth Circle in June. Alyssa Milano is in Wisegal in March. Tom Cavanagh is in The Capture of the Green River Killer, a mini-series on Lifetime Movie Network [also in March]. I have pop star JoJo in a movie with Valerie Bertinelli, which you'll be interested to hear is actually her first Lifetime movie.

EM: That's shocking to me.

SD: That's shocking to everyone! When you think Lifetime movies you think Valerie Bertinelli. All those movies she made were for CBS!

EM: What else are you working on?

SD: A daytime reality strip. I can't say what it is yet. And a half-hour observational reality series. We just got a primetime game show pilot last weekend. Plus the two comedy pilots and Army Wives. We would like to develop a companion drama to Army Wives and get it on our schedule, probably for 2009 at this point.

EM: Getting back to Season Finale, have you heard from any UPN veterans?

SD: Yes. I had some nice calls. An enormous number of people have called or written or e-mailed and said I got it right. That was one of the nicest things.

EM: Were your former WB colleagues pleased with it?

SD: Pretty much unanimously. I haven't gotten one negative call. I don't think Cynthia Littleton has, either. One of the many reasons I brought Cynthia in was I knew she had covered both sides and I really wanted an objective partner. I knew going into it how I felt about UPN, and I really felt the story was much bigger than the WB. The story to tell was the story of the two networks' struggle over ten years. I don't know that I would have gotten all of the interviews and all the participation that I did if I didn't have Cynthia. She very much helped our access, certainly on the UPN side. I always think, if I had suddenly gotten a call from Lucie Salhany and she said, “I'm writing a book and I would like your participation,” I'm not sure how fast I would have wanted to help her, because we were so intensely competitive with her for so long. She wore a pin with a dagger in the heart of a frog!

EM: Speaking of the frog, were you horrified when The WB killed off Michigan J?

SD: I was out of the network completely then. I read it in the paper. I called Garth Ancier and said, “You're nuts! I love you, but you are crazy to lose the frog!” I actually really believed in the power of the frog and the identification and the branding. I liked the limited use of the frog. There was a time and a place for him.

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