Looking for a Laugh

Oxygen goes for humor with latest slate

Oxygen is betting that middle-aged co-eds, portly beauty-pageant contestants and supermodel Tyra Banks will power it through the 2005 programming season.

Aiming to distinguish itself with comedic shows, the youth-skewing women's network has greenlighted six episodes of Campus Ladies, a half-hour comedy from Curb Your Enthusiasm star Cheryl Hines, as well as two-hour special Mo'Nique's Fat Chance, a pageant featuring full-figured women, hosted by the comedienne. Both bow this summer.

In the loosely scripted Campus, written by and starring Groundlings comedy troupe veterans Carrie Aizley and Christen Sussin, two fortysomething women enroll in college after one is divorced and the other widowed. The series is executive-produced by Hines and husband Paul Young of Principato-Young.

Launching an original comedy on a women's network is “pretty significant and highly unusual,” says Debby Beece, Oxygen president of programming and marketing. “Especially this comedy. It's out of the Reno 911 mold: a lot of improvisation, the single-camera thing. It's a lot of fun; it's a big rush and a great challenge.”

Noting the network's message of women's empowerment, Beece says Oxygen will continue to focus on “large, loud, assertive females” that younger women prefer.

Oxygen has tried with so far minimal success to find a buzz-worthy original to set itself apart from the other women's cable networks.

“[Campus] could turn out to be a cult hit if they have something new,” says Shari Anne Brill, VP/director of programming at media-buying firm Carat USA. “There's a place on the dial for all three women's networks.”

In addition to the series and special, Oxygen has also scheduled a June 25 premiere for previously announced original movie Nadine in Dateland, starring Janeane Garafolo as a bumbling yet confident modern-day heroine trying to save her dating service and her love life. And in June, the network will group acquired sitcoms Roseanne, Ellen, Living Single and A Different World into a daytime comedy block anchored by newest acquisition Grace Under Fire.

Oxygen has also bought cable rights to upcoming Warner Bros.-syndicated The Tyra Banks Show, to begin airing evenings this fall. It has also picked up two more seasons of both The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Oprah After the Show; the latter will move from being stripped in fringe to airing once a week.

The network also picked up new seasons of original dark comedy Nighty Night and crime series Snapped and acquired cable rights to motion pictures Adaptation, Secretary and Laurel Canyon.

Oxygen, which reaches approximately 55 million homes—far fewer than Lifetime's 88 million—posts much lower ratings than both female network Lifetime and its digital sister Lifetime Movie Network. But it grew 16% in prime time viewership in the first quarter of this year, with 227,000 total viewers versus 196,000 in first quarter 2004. (Lifetime was up 8% to 1.78 million; LMN was up 4% to 416,000; and Cable­vision-owned women's network WE was down 13% to 158,000).

Oxygen boasts a younger median age—around 43—than Lifetime's and WE's (both around 48). Two years ago, in an effort to brand itself as exciting and young, the network launched a marketing campaign with the tagline: “Oh!”

Backed by big-name investors including Chairman/CEO Geraldine Laybourne, Oprah Winfrey and producer Carsey-Werner, Oxygen received much media attention when it launched in 2000, but it has struggled to earn more.