One of the thematic threads running through America’s psyche over the last few months has been powerful women — Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Tina Fey, Katie Couric, to name a few of the more obvious. And similarly, the power of women’s networks has, for the cable industry, been more markedly apparent.

Lifetime, for instance, which lost its crown as the No. 1 ranked basic cable network a few years back, is reversing a formerly flat Nielsen’s ratings scenario thanks to hit series like Army Wives and movies like The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.

Almost all of the top femme-focused channels have a healthy sprinkling of ratings gains to crow about, judging by their performance in the women’s demo power pack: 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54, as well as all persons 18-49, during third quarter 2008 versus the same period last year.

For example, WE tv’s ratings were up in prime time and full day in the 18-34 and 25-54 female demos in Q3 as well as the prime daypart for all persons 18-49 and women 18-49. Lifetime Movie Network’s ratings were up in women 18-34 in prime and women 25-54 in full day; Lifetime showed ratings gains in women 25-54 prime. Oxygen’s ratings were up in prime time and full day in all four demos in Q3.

Despite the gains, women’s networks continue to be bested by general entertainment channels that have top-ranked series with strong female protagonists. Witness The Closer and Saving Grace on TNT and The Starter Wife on USA. During the third quarter, those networks were ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the key women 18-49 and 25-54 demos in prime and total day. However, Lifetime does tie with that duo in 18-34 total day.

The competition doesn’t stop there. The Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN, is due to replace Discovery Health’s signal late next year. Don’t expect any of the rivals to take that new challenge sitting down. Judging by the current stare-down in the courts between Lifetime and Bravo over rights to Bravo’s hit series Project Runway, they protect their turf fiercely. Bravo may not be a women’s channel, but its owner, NBC Universal, is propositioning advertisers with the idea that it provides a critical mass of women with the combination of Bravo, Oxygen and iVillage.

The most hotly contested battle among women-focused nets right now is between Oxygen and Lifetime Movie Network. During 3Q, they flipped back and forth between the No. 2- and No. 3-ranked network in the three female demos, behind Lifetime.

The younger the demo, the more LMN loses female viewers. In fact, in the 18-34 female breakout, it’s well below Oxygen and tied with WE tv — a network that has focused on what every little girl wants: to become a bride.

Oxygen started climbing in the ratings before NBC Universal took it over last year, stoked by series like The Janice Dickenson Modeling Agency. And it’s continued the trend with such hits as Deion & Pilar: Primetime Love, which garnered the network’s highest ratings ever when it debuted last April.

LMN has some ratings coups of its own, among them Little Girl Lost: The Delimar Vera Story, which debuted in August. Time will tell whether or not the 18 original movies LMN is ordering up this season will successfully combat new shows from WE like Sex Change Hospital and Oxygen’s January debut of Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model.

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