Behind Oxygen’s Killer Rebranding

True-crime overhaul kicks in for NBCU’s former general entertainment women’s net

Why This Matters

A network rebranding carries major risk and, at times, serious reward.

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High-end true-crime series such as Netflix’s Making a Murderer and This American Life podcast Serial played a significant part in Oxygen’s decision to remake itself as the destination for crime series. The rebrand has been gradual, but it’s now kicking in in earnest, with a new logo making its way to air, and the resurrection of Dick Wolf’s Cold Justice series, which debuts July 22, among other crime show launches.

Rod Aissa, Oxygen executive VP of original programming and development, said the wildly popular crime series on Netflix and podcasts such as Serial revealed a younger version of the true-crime fan that Oxygen executives found intriguing. He speaks of a new wave of women consuming those pop-culture staples.

“We’re looking to engage with younger women,” he said, “this next generation of crime viewer.”

Oxygen was launched in 2000 by Geraldine Laybourne, Oprah Winfrey and the owners of Carsey-Werner, Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach, with Laybourne holding the chairman title. Backed by tech billionaire Paul Allen, it was seen as an alternative to Lifetime. Early series included the reality shows Bad Girls Club and The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency.

NBCUniversal acquired Oxygen in 2007, shelling out $925 million, and seeing it as a pillar in the comany’s “virtual women’s network,” along with Bravo, Today and iVillage. Lauren Zalaznick, then Bravo’s president, replaced Laybourne atop Oxygen.

Aissa mentions a “bifurcated strategy” that existed for years at Oxygen, which is currently available in more than 77 million homes. While some tuned in for Bad Girls Club — the reality show made it to 17 seasons, though it does not appear to have a future on Oxygen — others came to Oxygen for true-crime offerings such as long-running series Snapped, about women accused of murder.

Talk of the rebrand started about a year ago, according to Aissa. “Among the options we discussed, [crime] was one we already had a foot in,” said Aissa, who noted that he consumed loads of true-crime TV, including NBC’s long-running Dateline, with his mother when he was a child.

Crime Time, All the Time

After it expanded its “Crime Time” weekend block to Friday-Monday, Oxygen shared word of its crime-network rebrand earlier this year. Three Days to Live, focusing on the first 72 hours after someone is abducted, debuted in March. Cold Justice, which sees a veteran prosecutor and a crew of detectives dig into small-town murder cases that have not been resolved, starts July 22.

Wolf said the intent of Cold Justice, which aired on TNT from 2013-15, is to provide justice for victims and their families and “give hope to those who had all but given up.”

In the fall, Wolf’s Criminal Confessions, about what actually goes on in police interrogation rooms, premieres. Executive producer Adam Kassen said scripted dramas show “aggressive, in-your-face” detectives eliciting confessions. The reality is a more nuanced approach. “They genuinely try to make a connection with people,” he said.

Oxygen acquired the investigative newsmagazine Dateline: Secrets Uncovered from Peacock Productions, with NBC News anchor Craig Melvin hosting and freshening up previously aired episodes. That premieres July 21.

Also set to debut are Mysteries and Scandals from Wilshire Studios and Soledad O’Brien, and Ice Cold Murder from Asylum Entertainment.

“We know that crime programming delivers an engaged, passionate consumer and we’re excited to deliver these audiences to marketers as they continue to advance their business priorities,” said Laura Molen, executive VP, lifestyle and Hispanic advertising sales at NBCU, when several of the show launches were announced.

Making a Murderer and Serial, as well as the HBO documentary The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, went way deep on a single case or an individual defendant; Oxygen will try the same with What Happened to … Jessica Chambers, a docuseries about a Mississippi teen who was doused with gas and set on fire. Producers will carefully follow the defendant’s trial this fall. Buzzfeed Motion Pictures is a partner on that series.

Same goes for The Disappearance of, a series of multipart documentaries about young women who have gone missing. Natalee Holloway, the Alabama teenager who disappeared on a trip to Aruba in 2005, is up first in that series.

Aissa mentions the “play along” nature of the new shows, where the viewer reassesses blame with the revelation of each new clue, which matches up well with a younger version of the true-crime watcher. “We give the audience the opportunity to lean in, as opposed to watching passively,” he said.

New Blood

Oxygen is competing for viewers with Investigation Discovery (ID), which offers its own take on true-crime programming with shows such as The Coroner: I Speak for the Dead — season two started July 17 — along with American Monster and Homicide Hunter. ID has a big headstart, launching in early 2008 when parent Discovery rebranded its Discovery Times Channel.

Christine Becker, associate professor of TV studies at the University of Notre Dame, said there’s been a gap in crime programming since Court TV became truTV in 2008. “I wonder if this is an attempt to skew younger,” she said.

“I associate Oxygen with programming for older women, so given the current vogue for crime stories in new formats that younger audiences are going for, this may be an attempt to lure them back over to TV.”

Criminal Confessions producer Kassen said the true-crime genre got some great storytelling, and lots of new viewers, when Making a Murderer, Serial and FX’s scripted The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story went to air. He mentions an array of “nuanced, layered storytelling in the documentary medium.”

Information on the average age of Oxygen viewers is not available. But the Nielsens have responded to the rebrand — Oxygen ratings are up 51% in total viewers year-over-year.

With much of the nation divided politically and socially, and many feeling a general sense of unease, the time may be right for crime programming, Aissa said. “In times of uncertainty, people gather around things like the narrative of justice,” he said. “Shows talking about justice are probably good during a time of uncertainty.”

Oxygen will continue rolling out crime series in the fall and into next year. “We’re building,” said Aissa. “We’re just getting started.”