News

Experts: Theres Breathing Room for Oxygen

12/12/1999 7:00 PM Eastern

What do seasoned programmers, veteran cable executives,
feminists and broadcast-journalism professors have to say about Oxygen and its prospects?
Multichannel
News contacted a number of these people to get their take on Geraldine Laybourne's
network for women network, Oxygen. Here are their observations:

Martha Lauzen, professor of communications at San
Diego State University:

Lauzen recently completed a study called Stuck in
Primetime: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in the 1998-99 Season
, which found
that last season, only 38 percent of all characters on the top-100-rated primetime shows
were women. Women also accounted for only roughly 22 percent of behind-the-scenes workers
on the programs considered in the study. So Lauzen has a definite opinion on whether there
is a need for a new women's cable channel.

"Is there room or a need for a network that
specifically targets women?" Lauzen said. "I would answer with an emphatic yes.
The female market, particularly 40-plus, is dramatically underserved by all six broadcast
networks. The market is begging for honest and smart portrayals of women, done in an
intelligent way."

Though Lauzen also likes what she has seen on Lifetime
Television, she said that network's original dramatic series are limited.

"Any Day Now is a great show, but it's only one
hour," Lauzen said.

Marlene Sanders, veteran broadcast journalist

Sanders couched her remarks by saying that she and Oxygen
officials have talked about working together. She said she certainly sees an opening for a
new women's network: "I must say I'm not very impressed with the ones we've
got.".

But getting a new network of any kind off the ground is a
daunting task, she said, and that may be especially so for Oxygen.

"I wish them well," Sanders said. "Gerry
Laybourne is very talented. But it's very difficult to do this. Who is home during the day
and how are they [Oxygen] going to compete at night? They must come up with innovative
programming. There's an opportunity to do it right … if they treat women with
dignity, and not be trivial and foolish."

Kay Koplovitz, CEO of Koplovitz & Co. and
founder and ex-CEO of USA Network

Like any new network, Oxygen's success or failure will
hinge on its programming, said Koplovitz.

"Is there room for another women's network?" she
asked. "There is if it's well executed. There's always room for a great idea with
great execution."

But Koplovitz pointed out that many networks seek out and
attract women viewers, noting that USA has a larger female audience than Lifetime.

"It's misguided to say there's only one channel that
targets women, Lifetime," she said. "There are a lot of networks that have
strong women's demographics. There is no question there is large women's audience, but
what are you going to do to attract them?"

In the current environment, getting carriage is tough for a
start-up like Oxygen, Koplovitz also cautioned.

"Distribution is a very hard row to hoe, and a very
expensive one," she said. "It's a formidable task for anyone to undertake
today."

Cathy Perron, professor and program director for
the television management program at Boston University's School of Communications

There is a niche for Oxygen, according to Perron.

"If you look at the primary demographic of broadcast
television, it has always been women 18 to 49," she said. "So in my estimation,
it seems likely more than one cable channel [targeting women] can not only survive, but
thrive."

Perron is particularly upbeat about Oxygen, because from
the start it has been envisioned as a convergence of two different platforms -- television
and the Internet.

"That's where I see enormous potential -- e-commerce,
as it relates to women's programming," Perron said. "Women have always been the
primary consumer [in the home]. The Internet aspect will make it a much more viable
prospect. … That's what makes it stand apart from Lifetime and Romance Classics. From
its conception, it was designed as being much more interactive. It's a very, very viable
project."

Oxygen's timing is perfect, according to Perron.

"Look at the Internet site business for
Christmas," she said. "With the new advanced set-tops, it's easy to be able to
move right from television to the Internet and send your American Express number
down."

Prof. Robert Thompson, Syracuse University Center
for the Study of Popular Television

In the "increasingly fragmented" television
landscape that viewers have "to graze on," there is an opening for a new women's
network like Oxygen, Thompson said.

"If the cable universe has room for a game show
channel, which it does, and a golf channel, which it does, and ESPN and ESPN2, and two
C-SPANs, then there is probably room for something like this," Thompson said.
"But the assessment ultimately will be based on what they put on the air."

He noted that Oprah Winfrey's involvement with Oxygen
"gives it promise and legitimacy."

While Thompson said that while Lifetime generally has a
good buzz and "really serves a purpose … it's not hitting home runs all the
time."

Additionally, he said he can see some positive things
coming from a network that serves the female audience. He noted that only recently have
the broadcast networks programmed for women more sensitively, and hired women at the
executive level.

Margaret Loesch, president and CEO of Odyssey, A
Henson & Hallmark Entertainment Network

As a woman -- and based on personal experience --
Loesch believes there is an opportunity for Oxygen. But she also knows how difficult it is
to line up distribution for a fledgling cable network.

"My opinion is there is definitely room for a women's
channel from a different perspective, one that broadly targets women," Loesch said.
"From the audience perspective, there is a tremendous opportunity for Oxygen. From
the business perspective, that's where it gets tough. It is a very tough time. There are
so many channels."

Loesch has a special appreciation for Laybourne's
challenge, since she faced a lot of naysayers and skepticism when she started up the Fox
Kids Network years ago.

"People often said to me, 'What are you nuts? Why do
you think we need more kids programming?' " Loesch said. "I know what Gerry's up
against. But if the programming is interesting, viewers will come to it."

Loesch compared Oxygen's strategy of spending a lot of
money on programming and advertising right out of the box, to that of the movie studio
Dreamworks SKG. Skeptics thought the Dreamworks plan was foolish, but Loesch said it paid
off.

"Oxygen is also is creating a stir before there's any
reality," she said. "I think it's going to work. It's risky. It's a big roll of
the dice.

"The pressure is on her to deliver the goods from a
programming perspective. But building a big profile may be the way to do it. You come out
with big guns, big money and a big ad campaign."

Erica Jong, feminist author

Jong said she's not familiar with the details of Oxygen's
proposed programming. But with that caveat, she said, "Of course, I'm all for
entrepreneurial women and I adore Oprah, who is a spiritual force of nature. I wish her
and Laybourne great success in creating alternative programming for the wasteland that
television.

"Goddess knows, the vacuum is there. May they fill it
and prosper. I'm rootin' for them."

Linda Ellerbee, CEO of Lucky Duck Productions and
executive producer and host of Nickelodeon's Nick News

Ellerbee started working with Nickelodeon after Laybourne,
who asked the veteran journalist to produce a Gulf War news special for kids, contacted
her.

Today, Ellerbee supports Laybourne's plans for Oxygen, and
even takes a little umbrage at the very question of whether there is room for, or a need,
for another women's network.

"The question is somewhat troublesome," Ellerbee
said. "No one asks why there is a golf channel We really are 51 percent of the
population. There is room for two, or three or four women's channels. … Why can't I
have a channel that is about the stock market and lipstick?"

Ellerbee also expressed discomfort about the way the media
is pitting Oxygen against Lifetime.

"It's being painted like a cat fight," she said.
"I don't think Lifetime feels threatened. I don't see this as a battle. It's a
win-win situation."

Linda Steiner, associate professor and chair of
Rutgers University's department of journalism

Steiner said she doesn't see a need for just any new
women's network, but for one that is genuinely different.

"Certainly there are already a number of cable
networks directed at women," she said. .

"If Oxygen will take women seriously -- treat
women as intelligent, independent, politically thoughtful, culturally engaged -- then
there is a need for it."

The professor does have faith in what Oxygen's partners can
achieve.

"Geraldine Laybourne and Oprah Winfrey are
professionals whom I would trust to do a pretty good job here, too," Steiner said.
"They strike me as sincere, politically astute, intelligent, serious people who are
also, obviously, excellent business people. They are feminists. If any women could do a
good job with this, they could."

Steiner also would like to see Oxygen program for female
teens.

"I hope (and assume) that Laybourne and Winfrey take
into consideration the needs of young women, both white women, and women of color,"
Steiner said. "Somewhat more controversially, I'd add that it would be nice to see
some content for young women and girls that goes beyond training bras for
(hetero)sexuality, that doesn't merely try to teach girls how to flirt and attract
boys."

Want to read more stories like this?
Get our Free Newsletter Here!
September
October

VR 20/20

The Times Center, New York, NY