Letting Oxygen Breathe

Women’s network president gains big by going big
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If people had the same kinds of buzzy catch phrases that advertising campaigns do, Jason Klarman’s would be “Go big or go home.” The president of Oxygen Media’s brash, extroverted style, combined with a deep reverence for TV, has propelled a career defined by innovation in a Darwinian media environment where risk aversion can often be the kiss of death.

Oxygen was a rather nondescript women’s channel with no clear brand identity when it was acquired by NBC Universal in 2008. Klarman, who was instrumental in the transformation of NBCU’s Bravo from a stolid arts channel to a pop-culture powerhouse, was handed the reins of Oxygen with a similar mandate. He quickly jettisoned the net’s pink palette (literally and figuratively) and ascribed the “Live Out Loud” motto that has defined both its programming and its digital and marketing strategies.

The results tell a tale. The fifth season premiere of Bad Girls Club Miami last August attracted more female viewers age 18-34 than any other cable network (and CBS and ABC) at that time. OxygenLive—which lets viewers interact with each other and series stars—has helped drive Oxygen.com to its best quarter ever in unique visitors (up 44% year-to-year) and video streams (up 177%). The network locked up offnet reruns to Fox phenom Glee, the top show among women 18-34, in a deal that includes an unscripted Glee spin-off set to bow next year. And the network recently picked up a docu-series centered on paparazzi favorite Paris Hilton.

“This guy is curious, he’s unafraid,” says Lauren Zalaznick, president of women & lifestyle entertainment networks for NBC Universal, who has been a mentor to Klarman since they worked together at pop culture channel Trio. At Trio, Klarman created several indelible marketing campaigns around the network’s programming themes, notably “Brilliant But Cancelled” and “Uncensored Month.”

Klarman brought a pioneering spirit to Bravo, where as executive VP of digital and marketing he was instrumental in the net’s successful 2005 rebrand with the signature talk-bubble logo and “Watch What Happens” tagline—a nod to the social network ethos of the digital age. “Bravo was a network that had shows that succeeded only if people talked about them,” Klarman explains. He also developed the network’s digital strategy at a time when digital was considered an afterthought at best and a cannibalizing element at worst. When Project Runway launched in ’04, Klarman wanted to have a blog about the show on Bravo.com. But getting host Heidi Klum to do it was a non-starter. So urbane mentor Tim Gunn, an unknown fashion professor, was pressed into service.

Despite early lackluster ratings for the show, “Tim Gunn’s blog was getting 1 million hits a month when the Bravo site was getting 5 million,” Klarman says. “I was like, who the hell is Tim Gunn?”

It’s proof that Klarman, says Zalaznick, has “transformed digital from scheduling and marketing to a consumer-basing business. He’s also transformed marketing from the nasty cost center you’re always trying to cut money out of to a complete business.”

Klarman first cut his boundary-pushing chops at large PR firm Edelman before moving to CNBC, where he met Roger Ailes, who eventually put him in charge of marketing for the launch of Fox News. It was that job that initiated Klarman into the effectiveness of statement marketing. The channel’s signature “We Report. You Decide” campaign was inspired, to be sure. “We plastered that campaign all over God’s green earth,” says Klarman, including on two enormous billboards across the street from CNN’s Atlanta headquarters. Klarman recalls: “Somebody asked me, ‘Why are you putting Hannity and Colmes on the side of a building 80 feet high? Nobody knows them.’ But that was the point. Now they do.”

In today’s media environment, where marketing has become relentless and ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget how controversial the Fox News launch campaign was—not to mention how successful.

“The biggest lesson I got there is, you can’t beat somebody playing by their rules,” Klarman says. “If we had set out to create a copy of CNN, we would have failed. Go big. Go bold. Or go home.”

E-mail comments to mguthrie@nbmedia.com and follow her on Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie

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