Daytime, originally called BETA, was launched in March 1982 by Hearst-ABC Video Services. The cable service operated four hours per day on weekdays. The service was focused on alternative women's programming.
Cable Health Network was launched as a full-time channel in June 1982 with a range of health-related programming. In November 1983, Cable Health Network adopted a new name, Lifetime Medical Television.
Lifetime was established on February 1, 1984 as the result of a merger of Hearst/ABC's Daytime and Viacom's Lifetime Medical Television. A board for the new network was formed with equal representation from Hearst, ABC and Viacom, and the board elected Thomas Burchill as the new network's first CEO. It was not an initial success, reportedly losing $36 million in its first two years of operation, and did not become profitable until 1986. The channel suffered from low viewership, with a poll reportedly finding that some TV viewers erroneously believed it carried religious content.
In 1985, Lifetime started branding itself as "Talk Television" with a nightly lineup of talk shows and call-in programs hosted by people like Regis Philbin and Dr. Ruth Westheimer. In the process, the creators dropped the apple from their logo.
In 1988, Lifetime hired Patricia Fili as its head of programming. In the first three years of her tenure, she changed 60 percent of Lifetime's programming, by her own estimate. In addition to overhauling Lifetime's signature talk show, Attitudes, by hiring a new producer and refocusing it on current women's issues, Fili acquired the rights to syndicated network hits like Moonlighting and L.A. Law. She also oversaw the production of the first Lifetime movies ever made, along with carrying the final three seasons of the Blair Brown-starring dramedy The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd from NBC after the network canceled it. The network also showed movies from the portfolios of its owners, Hearst, ABC, and Viacom. In 1991, reporter Joshua Hammer stated, "Considered one of cable TV's backwaters, [...] Lifetime network was replete with annoying gabfests for housewives and recycled, long-forgotten network television series, such as 'Partners in Crime' and 'MacGruder and Loud.' [...] Under Fili's direction, Lifetime has gone a long way toward shedding its low-rent image."
Lifetime began airing a limited amount of women's sports coverage, including the WNBA and the America's Cup, in which it sponsored the first women's crew team to compete. McCormick also strengthened the network's ties with women's organizations such as the National Organization for Women, and began airing public service announcements about women's issues, such as breast cancer awareness. Lifetime also adopted a new tagline. "Lifetime – Television for Women."
Meanwhile, the channel's original programming was aimed not just at women aged 24–44, but these women's spouses, who research showed watched the network in the evenings with their wives. This was done by making the male characters in Lifetime's original programming – such as the film series Spencer for Hire – more appealing to men by making them more masculine. These roles were more stereotypical than previous Lifetime movies, which usually featured women protagonists on their own. This helped Lifetime take advantage of a known bias in the Nielsen ranking system that favored "upscale" couples who shared a television set. By January 1995, Lifetime was the sixth most-highly rated cable network by Nielsen.
In 1996, TCI, one of the United States' largest cable providers, announced that it would no longer carry Lifetime in certain markets to make room for the soon-to-be-launched Fox News Channel, in which TCI held a financial stake. According to Lifetime executives, the network stood to lose up to one million subscribers due to TCI's move. However, Lifetime published advertisements in some of the markets that would be affected – including Eugene, Oregon and Newport, Rhode Island – informing customers that TCI was removing the only network that was made for women. After TCI customers called the company to complain, TCI cut back the number of homes that would lose Lifetime to approximately 300,000. Still, women's groups and politicians rallied behind Lifetime. Colorado representative Patricia Schroeder called TCI's decision a "power play" between TCI chief executive John Malone and Fox executive Rupert Murdoch, and said, "Women kind of feel like they're being rolled over so that the guys who run these companies can make more money."
Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank said that the decision showed that Fox "might have an agenda of its own that is anti-woman." TCI executives were surprised and angry about the public's reaction. TCI's vice president of programming was quoted in The New York Times as saying, "I resent the implication that they are the women's network. Other networks come in to us and say Lifetime is not telling the truth. Lifetime is a women's channel only in name and advertising. [...] It programs for ratings." TCI senior vice president Robert Thomson stated that the reaction was "laughably out of scale," based on the fact that less than 10 percent of Lifetime's audience would be affected. TCI executives chalked the politicians' reactions up to lobbying by Lifetime and it being an election year, and suggested to the Times that in retaliation, Disney (one of Lifetime's parent companies), may have trouble launching a new network on TCI. In 1997, it was reported that Lifetime had 67.7 million subscribers.
On August 27, 2009, A&E Television Networks acquired Lifetime Entertainment Services.
In May 2012, Lifetime unveiled a new logo and branding campaign. The new slogan, "Your Life. Your Time.", "reflects how women value and experience time." The logo was the 11th in twenty years. The logo was revamped and the tagline was dropped the following year.
On February 2, 2017, A+E Network announced that Lifetime would be the official home for games of the National Women's Soccer League, as part of a deal with the league and the company; the “NWSL Game of the Week on Lifetime” will air every Saturday on the channel at 4 p.m. ET, with a pre-game show at 3:30 p.m. ET, from April through September; it was not announced how long the contract lasts. Coincidental with the announcement, Lifetime unveiled a new logo, which initially separated 'life' and 'time' into two different lines in a draft logo, but in execution continues to represent 'Lifetiime' as one word.
Lifetime airs a mix of original broadcast content - which comprise film, reality (such as Dance Moms and Preachers' Daughters), and dramatic programming (such as Devious Maids and Witches of East End) - and second-run syndicated series (such as How I Met Your Mother, and Grey's Anatomy). The network states that it "is committed to offering the highest quality entertainment and information programming, and advocating a wide range of issues affecting women and their families."
In the past, Lifetime used to air several game shows in daytime and early evenings, including Supermarket Sweep, Shop 'til You Drop, and Debt. Lifetime also produced one original game show (Who Knows You Best?, starring Gina St. John), with a format based on The Newlywed Game; it was canceled after one season.
Lifetime has also purchased the rights to programs that originally aired on broadcast networks and produced new episodes. In 1988, it bought the rights to the existing 26 episodes of The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd from its original broadcaster NBC, and produced 13 additional episodes of the series. Lifetime did not renew the show reportedly because of low ratings and the high cost to produce the program. In late 2011, the network began to air new episodes of America's Most Wanted, a program canceled in series form by Fox at the end of the 2010–11 season, although special feature episodes continued to air intermittently on Fox. Lifetime aired more than 40 new episodes of the program before cancelling it in 2013.
Lifetime airs many movies targeted to women – made-for-television films produced for the channel as well as those previously broadcast on other networks, and some feature films, both on the main network (largely airing on weekends) and on LMN (a spin-off digital cable and satellite channel that was launched in 1998).
In its early years, Lifetime occasionally broadcast coverage of Women's professional sports. From its inaugural season in 1997 to 2000, Lifetime was one of three broadcasters of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), alongside NBC and ESPN. In 2000, Lifetime phased out its live broadcasts and replaced them with an original series documenting the lives of WNBA players. The network stated that it wanted to focus on "stories" rather than event coverage; Lifetime transferred its package of games to ESPN2. As part of an arrangement with Raycom Sports, the network also broadcast the LPGA's Tournament of Champions in 1998.
In February 2017, A&E Networks acquired an equity stake in the National Women's Soccer League, and announced that Lifetime would broadcast a weekly, Saturday-afternoon game beginning in the 2017 season.
On May 30, 2012, Canadian television broadcaster Shaw Media announced that it would rebrand Showcase Diva, a Category B digital specialty channel as the Canadian version of Lifetime under a licensing agreement with A+E Networks; Showcase Diva relaunched as Lifetime on August 27, 2012.
On April 1, 2016, Shaw Media was acquired by Corus Entertainment, and as a result, both Lifetime Canada and the Canadian rights to the Lifetime library of original programming are now owned by Corus Entertainment
Lifetime announced the launch of a Latin American version of the network, which launched on July 1, 2014 (in South America, Caribbean and parts of Central America) in association with Sony Pictures Television Latin America. It supplanted the now-defunct Sony Spin channel (formerly known as Locomotion from 1996 to 2005 and Animax from 2005 to 2011) on the Amazonas satellite serving South America. In Mexico, it was launched on October 1, 2014, replacing The Biography Channel. In Brazil, the channel airs its programming fully dubbed in Portuguese. Lifetime Latin America is currently distributed by HBO Latin America Group, under license from A+E Networks Latin America and Sony Pictures Television Latin America.
A+E Networks UK launched a version of Lifetime for the UK and Ireland in November 2013. The shows announced to be airing on the channel are The Client List, Damages the Lifetime U.S. original movie, Liz & Dick, and an original series called The Proposers.
A+E Networks launched a version of Lifetime for Israel on 14 September 2014, replaced The Biography Channel.
AETN All Asia Networks plans to bring the Lifetime channel into Southeast Asia. The channel began broadcasting on 14 June 2013, with Astro and StarHub TV being two of the first providers to carry Lifetime in Asia. In July, available in Hong Kong now TV channel 520. And since September 1, 2014, Lifetime Asia airs in the Philippines on Dream Satellite TV channel 18 and SkyCable.
On 16 March 2016, A&E Television Networks has announced that Lifetime Türkiye channel will be launched on 26 April 2016 in Turkey with cooperation of Multi Channel Developers
LRW (Lifetime Real Women) is an American digital cable channel which is intended as a complementary service to the main Lifetime network. It was launched in August 2001, mainly as a response to Lifetime's challenges from the then-launching WE tv and Oxygen networks for the women's cable network market. LRW is available in over 10 million homes via digital cable, Verizon FiOS, and AT&T U-verse. The network has a mixture of comedies, dramas, how-to, game shows and reality programming that had once aired or is currently airing on the main Lifetime network, along with imported series with rights held by Lifetime but no carriage due to the main network's current format. LRW also features no original series or films, deferring from Lifetime and LMN, though it did burn off the 2011 Lifetime reality series Love Handles: Couples in Crisis, which only aired twice on the main network.
The network is unavailable via satellite; DirecTV carried the network until July 2007. Cable carriage has declined as providers choose instead to carry high definition networks rather than standard definition-only channels such as LRW without original programming.
On July 2, 2015 it was announced Lifetime had launched a streaming service titled Lifetime Movie Club. The service is $3.99 per month, the service features 30 films which rotate weekly. The service will also feature no commercials, and is available through Lifetime's website and through the App Store.