Geraldine Laybourne will breathe life into Oxygen, her
women's cable network, this week, as it debuts in markets such as San Francisco;
Chicago; Denver; Dallas; Pittsburgh; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle, home base of Paul Allen,
a $100 million backer.
Oxygen's launch Wednesday (Feb. 2) is certainly one of
the most anticipated and hyped in recent memory. It's a risky undertaking -- a cable
network starting out with virtually 100 percent original programming, 55 hours per week.
As such, media gadflies are waiting to see if Oxygen's
celebrated founder-partners -- former Nickelodeon chief Laybourne, Oprah Winfrey and
TV-hit producers Marcy Carsey, Caryn Mandabach and Tom Werner -- can repeat their huge
successes in other television venues at this newbie network.
With Lifetime Television already commanding 75 million
subscribers, it remains to be seen if cable operators -- and viewers -- will provide
enough support for another women's outlet to make it financially viable.
In the wake of Oxygen's debut, Lifetime is relaunching
its Web site and adding more informational shows. With those moves, Lifetime is taking on
Oxygen on the start-up's own turf: the convergence of TV, PCs and nonfiction
Candice Bergen, who is hosting a talk show for the network,
is among those slated to join Laybourne and Winfrey at Oxygen's Manhattan
headquarters to pull the switch for the network at 8 p.m. Wednesday. That's when live
show Pure Oxygen goes on the air.
Prior to that, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., the network will
still be cablecasting live, going behind the scenes to offer a documentary-style look at
the hours leading up to its debut.
Laybourne, CEO of Oxygen Media, said Oxygen will roll out
to 10 million subscribers over the next few months. It's a little trickier to
calculate specifically how many homes it will have on its actual debut date this week.
"It's not as tidy as anyone would want," she
said. "It will take some months to have all of the households up."
AT&T Broadband & Internet Services expects to have
Oxygen launched to more than 3 million analog subscribers this week, according to an MSO
spokeswoman. Allen's Charter Communications Inc. will roll the network out to 900,000
subscribers, a Charter spokeswoman said.
Oxygen will also have rollouts on MediaOne Group Inc. and
Insight Communications Co. Inc. systems -- the other MSOs it has carriage deals with.
In addition to markets such as Chicago and San Francisco,
Oxygen will also be launched in the vicinities of Los Angeles; Detroit; Atlanta; Tampa-St.
Petersburg and Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.; Sacramento,
Calif.; St. Louis; and Baltimore.
Oxygen's business plan calls for it to be in 50
million homes in four years, according to Laybourne. Right now, the network has
commitments for 25 million subscribers, she said.
But at its launch, Oxygen -- which claims that it will
seamlessly integrate its Web sites and TV programming -- will be missing carriage in the
major media and financial capital of the world, New York. So far, the network doesn't
have any affiliation deals with Time Warner Cable, which has the Big Apple market.
This past Sunday, Oxygen Media was one of the advertisers
that anted up close to $2 million to air a spot during the Super Bowl.
That commercial will direct viewers to Oxygen's Web
site, which will have been revamped over the weekend, according to Laybourne. There will
be a section on the site referring to the TV network, where viewers can enter ZIP codes,
find out who their cable operators are and send e-mails requesting Oxygen.
Oxygen made the decision not to run an 800 number in its ad
for viewers to call to ask their cable operators to carry the network, Laybourne said.
"We decided that's way too hostile," she added. "It's very
annoying. It clogs up a cable operator's phone line."
Nonetheless, some people who have previously logged onto
Oxygen's Web site got e-mails last week with phone numbers for local cable operators
or direct-broadcast satellite companies. The e-mails say that if the person doesn't
have time to call, they can go to the Web site, where "we'll have the tools to
make it easy for you to get your voice heard."
Apart from Allen's Vulcan Ventures Inc., Oxygen
investors include Winfrey's Harpo Entertainment Group, America Online Inc., The Walt
Disney Co. (ironically, a 50 percent-owner of Lifetime), LVMH Möet Hennessy Louis Vuitton
AOL's recently announced plans to acquire Time Warner
Inc. bode well for Oxygen's quest to secure carriage with Time Warner Cable, which
has the valuable New York DMA.
AOL president Bob Pittman gave Laybourne, a former
schoolteacher, her big break at Nickelodeon. "He gave me a shot at Nick, and I
didn't let him down," Laybourne said.
Oxygen will spend $400 million on programming during its
first four years, with about $100 million of that earmarked for the first year.
Its program schedule kicks off with a morning yoga show, Inhale.
There will be some women's documentaries during the day; a game show; an afternoon
block for teen-agers; sketch comedy; live primetime signature show Pure Oxygen; and
Bergen's 10 p.m. interview show, Exhale. Weekends will include fare such as
shopping block "SheCommerce"and sports-programming block "We
Lifetime has several changes in the works, the timing of
which, perhaps not coincidentally, coincides with Oxygen's cable-network launch.
Lifetime will relaunch its Web site Feb. 24, and it
retained ZeniMax Media to develop new-media opportunities. ZeniMax executive Sam Simon,
the Emmy Award-winning co-creator of The Simpsons, has developed two animated
characters, Tina and Lulu, for Lifetime's site.
And Lifetime will premiere a live, daily, hour-long
information program, Lifetime Live, March 6.
Lifetime president Carole Black repeated what has become
her stock answer to reporters who ask her about the new competition, Oxygen. She said
networks with a lot of women viewers, such as Romance Classics and Food Network, are
already up and running and drawing more women to cable.
"What's happened to Lifetime is what happens to a
dominant brand in a growing category," Black told critics attending the recent
Television Critics Association tour. "They've grown, but we've grown,