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Women On The Verge

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Touring the L.A. set of the Lifetime hit Any Day Now is like wading through an earthquake-stricken Melrose Place. Scattered haphazardly between the country blue kitchen of fortysomething homemaker Mary Elizabeth (Annie Potts) and the Birmingham, Ala., law office of her best friend Rene (Lorraine Toussaint) are remnants from the soundstage’s previous tenant: an archway bearing the words ”Amanda Woodward Advertising,” a row of barstools from the Upstairs jazz club, Michael Mancini’s framed medical license peeking out from a pile of cheap watercolors. Oddly enough, even the soap’s recurring shrink, Dr. Visconti (Mark Taylor), can be found wandering about: An actor, he also works as Day‘s dialogue coach. ”Walking in the first day, I half expected to see Heather Locklear,” says Taylor of Any Day Now‘s move to Melrose‘s old digs in late July. ”My second thought was, Where the hell’s the pool?”

It’s not like Potts and Co. need it: Day (which returned for its second season Aug. 15) is making a considerable splash on its own. Since its debut in August ’98, Lifetime’s smart, poignant drama has drawn raves for tackling what no show on the diversity-challenged, youth-obsessed broadcast nets would dare: the sticky subject of race relations as told through the eyes of two Southern women, one white, one black, and both old enough to parent the kids on Dawson’s Creek. ”As you get older, there aren’t as many worthy suitors,” says Potts, 46, who had decided, before reading Day‘s pilot, to take a break from series TV after two failed entries (ABC’s Dangerous Minds and Over the Top). ”But just when I thought I had sworn off love, it found me.” Toussaint, 39, and a veteran of Murder One, was equally enamored: ”Certainly as a black actress, I’d never encountered a character as dimensional as Rene. I read half the script, called my manager, and said, ‘I know it’s the middle of the night, but I was born to play this. Get to work.”’

The actresses’ instincts proved sound. Day has become Lifetime’s No. 1 series, and its second-season premiere nabbed an impressive (for cable) 1.8 million viewers, 800,000 more than last year’s average. That’s good news not only for 15-year-old Lifetime, which saw its ratings jump 10 percent in the past year (with 73 million subscribers, it ranks sixth among all cable nets), but also for women’s programming in general. Says media analyst Kathy Haesele of Advanswers: ”Lifetime saw an underserved audience and served it. Now everyone wants a piece of the pie.”

Competition for mature female eyeballs is heating up faster than you can say ”Finally, real women that viewers can relate to.” Besides NBC’s Providence, which shot out of the gate in January, the networks have a slew of female-centric series waiting in the wings this fall, including CBS’s Judging Amy, about a thirtysomething lawyer-turned-judge (Amy Brenneman) who moves back in with mom (Tyne Daly) after leaving her husband. ”People said, ‘The network’s not gonna go for it — there’s no male epicenter,”’ says NYPD Blue alumna Brenneman, who doubles as an exec producer. ”But I think [execs] are finally realizing there’s an audience for shows where women do something other than function in relation to men.”

Perhaps that’s because an increasing number of TV execs have two X chromosomes. While three of the six broadcast nets have recently appointed women to run their entertainment divisions, Lifetime hired its first female president and CEO, Carole Black, in February, although not without sparking rumors that departed honcho Doug McCormick was considering filing a sexual discrimination lawsuit. “Not true,” says McCormick, now a board member of iVillage Inc., operator of the leading Internet site for women. “There was no shortage of advisers who suggested that could be a great course of action. But I don’t work someplace all those years, then turn around and [sue]. That’s not my nature.” Nevertheless, Black admits there’s something to be said both for a woman at the helm, and for those who once criticized Lifetime for not practicing what it programmed. “I wouldn’t say a man couldn’t have the same instincts,” says Black, “but by the same token, I may not be the best person to be in charge of something that’s mostly for men, like the Golf Channel.”

Black’s instincts will be seriously tested come Feb. 2, 2000. That’s when former Nickelodeon president Geraldine Laybourne will unveil Oxygen, an interactive cable net for women. (Time Warner, parent company of EW, was considering launching the Women’s Network early next year, but those plans have been back-burnered indefinitely. The delay, according to a spokesperson, is due to financial considerations involving other developing nets rather than concerns that such a project would be unprofitable.) Though Oxygen’s 10 million subscribers won’t seriously challenge Lifetime’s ratings anytime soon, Laybourne is clearly hoping to suck more than a little wind out of her competitor’s sails. She’s partnered with media heavyweights Oprah Winfrey and producers Carsey-Werner-Mandabach and plans an impressive slate of original programming—at least 90 percent of its schedule within the first year (versus Lifetime’s current 50 percent)—including a prime-time talker from Candice Bergen (Exhale). While noting with a laugh that starting with so much original fare is “very brave and possibly stupid,” Oxygen cofounder Caryn Mandabach also feels “very strongly that there’s room for two women’s networks. We’re 51 percent of the population. It’s not like it’s a niche audience we’re talking about.”

Black agrees: “What [competition] does is make everyone better, which is good news for the viewer. My only question is, what took so long?”

Back on the set of Any Day Now, Annie Potts is diplomatically trying to avoid talking about her last hit. “When people ask me about Designing Women now,” she says, “I feel how I think James Taylor must feel when he has to play ‘Fire and Rain’ again. To tell you the truth, I’ve moved on.”

Potts may be reluctant to reminisce, but remembering the past is Any Day Now‘s greatest strength: The flashbacks of a white tomboy and a black new-girl-in-town, their friendship blossoming against all odds, are the show’s emotional core. “The civil rights movement is a part of our history [series television] has basically ignored,” says the show’s creator, Nancy Miller, whose previous credits include Profiler. “There was I’ll Fly Away, but I wanted to do something with more humor. I wasn’t interested in a dry history lesson.”

A series highlighting the sometimes humorous side of racial tensions in the ’60s? You can just hear the doors of the broadcast networks slamming. CBS agreed to six episodes as far back as 1990, but pulled the plug claiming Orion, the producer, couldn’t sell the show internationally. Miller persisted. ”Every pitch session I went to for eight years, I’d say, ‘I want to do this half-hour show about two little girls and the civil rights movement.’ Invariably, they’d say, ‘What about changing it to little boys? Or what about dropping the civil rights aspect?”’

Finally, Lifetime bit in ’98. Eager to move beyond its slate of talk shows and mopey movie melodramas, the net was already developing two original series—the comedies Oh Baby and Maggie—but was still in search of a drama. Senior VP of programming and production Dawn Tarnofsky-Ostroff heard about Any Day Now through two former CBS execs now at Lifetime. Her one caveat: The action had to be set in the present as well as the past, in order to explore what happened after the girls grew up. ”There was a void on the networks of shows starring women who weren’t angels or profilers,” says Tarnofsky-Ostroff, ”which was perfect for us because we wanted something you wouldn’t see on, say, NBC.”

And Miller admits she benefits from the comparative creative freedom of cable: ”There’s no way in hell the networks would let us do half of what we do.” They certainly wouldn’t let town bully Tully get away with some of his more provocative lines, though even Lifetime winced over last season’s ”Coloreds have to do it in the daytime so they can see each other.”

Day’s dramatically diverse staff (for TV anyway)—”five women and two men, two blacks, an Asian American, Christian, Catholic, Hindu, atheist, gay, straight, married, single, and divorced,” says Miller—is responsible for such charged dialogue and no end of heated discussions behind the scenes. ”It’s when we find ourselves in the middle of a screaming match that Nancy stands up and says, ‘This argument is why this will make a great episode,”’ says exec producer Gary A. Randall. Writer-producer Valerie Woods agrees: ”We did an episode on what makes [a joke racist], and we still don’t agree, but we started a dialogue. We don’t expect to solve racism. We’re just saying, Don’t be afraid to talk about it.”

Sexism is another story. ”None of us have worked on a show where women writers outnumber men, so sometimes we have to razz them a little,” Woods says. ”’Uh-oh, better watch out, women are taking over the world.”’ Or, at the very least, cable.

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