Too big to ignore

Television warms up to women with growing list of nets

Suddenly, it's
tres chic

to be she TV. The clamor surrounding the launch of Oxygen and the climb of Lifetime has emboldened an unprecedented expansion of networks with female appeal. Lifetime's self-branded movie net nearly tripled in size. Disney's SoapNet will end its first year with 8 million subscribers. Lifetime Movie Network, SoapNet and Rainbow's Romance Classics have pulled in 32 million subscribers between them in the past year.

Everyone has a different theory about the growth spurt.

"The rush usually comes when someone, anyone, announces the launch of a new service," said a cable-programming executive.

Lifetime Movie Network was launched two years ago, but the network added 8 million of its 11 million subscribers this year, much of it thanks to retransmission leverage exercised by parent partner Hearst.

"We created Lifetime Movie Network based on viewer demand," said Rick Haskins, executive vice president of marketing. "For three years in a row, LMN was the No. 1 choice for a new network in Beta Research. What Oxygen did is to put emphasis on women.and bring noise to the category."

Kate McEnroe made noise about the need for more women's networks when Romance Classics was first announced back in 1992, when advertising geared toward women was still pretty much limited to hygiene and housekeeping. Only in the past couple of years have the big-bucks advertisers, like automakers and financial institutions, come to recognize that women buy cars and manage money, McEnroe said.

Now three years old, Romance Classics has about 34 million subscribers-pretty much where Oxygen will be three years out. Unlike Oxygen, Romance Classics did not light a fire under the category, because not all women craved romance, McEnroe discovered. More of them wanted a back rub and a good glass of Chablis.

"We underestimated the stress women were going through," she said. "The sense of how they wanted the network to be was this oasis."

Romance may actually be renamed Oasis at the Western Show, if a deal can be ironed out with Oasis TV, a small new-age network based in Beverly Hills, Calif. Oasis Chairman and CEO Robert Schnitzer said he'd met with Rainbow executives several times, but a deal was not yet sealed at press time.

For women who do crave romance, at least in the chiseled-chin, bed-hopping, back-stabbing form of soap operas, there's SoapNet. Launched Jan. 24, SoapNet reaches about 8 million subscribers, 90% of them analog. SoapNet gained notoriety as a rerun network foisted by ABC on cable operators in heated retransmission negotiations. But even with retransmission chips mostly spent, Anne Sweeney, president of ABC Cable Networks, said she still expects SoapNet to reach full penetration and to eventually have its own shows.

"It's the last genre to go to cable," she said, "and I believe, in time, it will make its own exclusive soaps."

Sweeney likes to say that SoapNet is a "genre, not a gender network," but the audience is around 75% women, and that's the demo advertisers will see. Between Lifetime, Romance, Oxygen and more than eight other major cable channels skewing more than 60% female, advertisers already have plenty of choices to reach women.

The market won't support many more, said Tim Spengler, executive vice president and director of national broadcast at Initiative Media. "As the number of choices proliferates, you're going to see them cut into one another."