Oxygen: It Lives! Now Can It Breathe?

After some stumbles, the women's network is working to refine and redefine its image

As Oxygen continues its hunt for female viewers, the net is adding scripted shows that are both "powerful and playful," says programming chief Debby Beece. "We're out there trying to get ourselves noticed."

Oxygen certainly gained notice, if not notoriety, for its celebrated launch because of the star power of its investors. Noted programmer Geraldine Laybourne, mega-celeb Oprah Winfrey and show producer Carsey-Werner-Mandelbach had big plans three years ago, but Oxygen flopped like a fish.

After several well-documented stumbles, though, Oxygen is still working to refine and redefine its image. Its executives still want to offer women a smart alternative. But, these days, Oxygen is also lightening up a bit. Lifetime, queen of the women's niche, has cornered the market with a lot of serious and sentimental offerings. At Oxygen, Beece says, "we're trying to reach younger, engaged women with full lives." Those women, she contends, want more fun and funnier fare.

Oxygen seems to have a lot of ground to make up, particularly once the television world finally found out how tiny its viewership is: The channel, with 50 million subscribers, recorded a 0.2 rating in April, the first month its Nielsen ratings have been published for ad agencies and competing networks to see. That puts Oxygen's marks in the Nielsen sub-basement with National Geographic and its women's competitor WE: Women's Entertainment.

"To date, not enough viewers have been able to fit [Oxygen] into their array of options," said John Rash, senior vice president of media buyer Campbell Mithun.

To change that, Oxygen is venturing into scripted fare, with its first scripted series and made-for-TV movies. In Your Dreams, a sitcom about the sexual tension between two doctoral candidates working on a book about relationships, is slated for late this year. The second show, Sexual Anthropology,
a half-hour dramedy about a young (male) anthropology teacher looking for love, should debut early next year.

Like other cable channels, Oxygen has to be creative to finance expensive scripted projects. It has ordered 13 episodes of both shows. To help defray costs, the series are being shot abroad with international partners. And Oxygen is also trying to develop ideas in-house, although both In Your Dreams
and Sexual Anthropology
came from outside.

For two other original shows, Oxygen also embraced new partnerships. It's co-producing eight new episodes of British hit Absolutely Fabulous
with the BBC. Oxygen also airs older Ab Fab

And one of its two new animated shows, Hey Monie, is co-produced and shared with BET; it debuts on Oxygen June 1 (it has been airing on BET, but Oxygen will have new episodes). The other, Life's a Bitch,
which arrives in early 2004, is a solo venture.

The net's first original movie, A Tale of Two Wives,
is slated for this fall. After that, Oxygen plans one original movie per quarter.

Movies are a luxury that Oxygen finally feels it can afford. As a full-time cable channel, it has to make series its first priority. "You need to fill slots and create compelling programming 24/7," Beece says.

Oxygen is also renewing six non-scripted shows, including The Isaac Mizrahi Show, Girls Behaving Badly and Oprah After the Show.

Original programming now accounts for about 50% of Oxygen's schedule. The network is spending 25% more money on programming in 2003, Beece adds. That's up from about $85 million last year, according to Kagan World Media estimates.