Can 'Mama’ School Up a Hit?

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Van Nuys, Calif.— On a rather grungy industrial side street in this Los Angeles suburb, the leaders of Mag Rack have come seeking the Holy Grail — a franchise-defining hit for their four-year-old video-on-demand service.

Inside, craftsmen put the final touches on a pink, fuchsia and white-striped set, illuminated with faux chandeliers and furnished with purple satin settees. This will be the backdrop for Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts, a 20-episode series to debut on the on-demand service Aug. 4.

'WE NEED A HIT’

“We’re not unlike any other network,” said Daniel Ronayne, senior vice president and general manager of Mag Rack and the related Sportskool service. “We need a hit that defines the brand. We think this could be a brand-defining moment.”

His hopes fall on the shoulders of Regena “Mama Gena” Thomashauer. The petite, vivacious blonde has taught workshops titled “Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts” in New York for more than seven years.

Her nexus to Mag Rack: Cyndy Cecil, the on-demand service’s vice president of programming and promotion, was a student four years ago.

Thomashauer preaches her vision of female empowerment to “sister goddesses,” many of whom are such fans they will pay their way to this small studio near the Burbank Airport just to participate in the groups that will interact with Thomashauer on her show.

(Cecil happily remembers listing her life’s desires as part of Thomashauer’s class, including a wish to own a Cartier watch. Cecil’s husband saw the list and bought her the watch for her anniversary. Seeing it on her wrist reminds her of the empowerment lessons and makes her feel stronger in business meetings, she said, laughing and flexing her muscles.)

Host Thomashauer is very familiar with television. She’s been a guest many times on Today and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and just completed an episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

“I make the rounds,” she said. “But this is my show.”

The series of weekly episodes, running 10 to 30 minutes, will recreate her classrooms and focus on such topics as flirting, having fun “no matter what you’re doing,” dating tips for men, pleasure renovations for the home and office and creating one’s own desires in life.

“I want to remind people that life’s too important to take too seriously,” Thomashauer said. “You need a little joie in your vivre every day. I’m here to put the scales in balance. Women should be on a pedestal, not just cleaning the dust balls from around it.”

'MISSING ELIXIR’

She sees the image of women presented on her show as the opposite of the desperate housewife. Her show, she says, is “the missing elixir” from the current TV formula.

Mag Rack officials see good cross-promotional opportunities. The on-demand service currently the on-demand service passes 3.5 million cable homes, mostly through carriage by Cablevision Systems Corp., Charter Communications Inc. and Insight Communications Co. Mag Rack offers 40 hours a week of original lifestyle-based programming.

Users who view the other “magazines” on yoga, Pilates, cooking and even a show on motorcycles hosted by Natalie Jackson may be interested in tuning into the new show, noted Ronayne.

If the show is successful, Mag Rack will know through usage studies. “Our audience self-identifies programming that’s meaningful in their lives,” Ronayne added.

That interaction helps reinforce programming decisions and even alters the schedule.

For instance, the on-demand service added the show 24seven gamer last June, with no marketing, Ronayne said. It was almost instantly a great programming success, he said, adding that viewers who embrace technology (like games and VOD) are interested in programming about technology.

As for programming decisions, Mag Rack viewers are not shy about telling programmers if they’ve made a wrong choice. Research shows that people often abandon exercise programs because they become bored with their routines.

So, the on-demand service changes its fitness modules. But viewers complained that they were “just getting into” one recently cycled-out module and executives restored it to the menu.

STUDIO TIES

Mag Rack has also been expanding its tie-ins with major studios. During the pay-per-view window for Ray, the on-demand service put together Ray on My Mind, a program that included rare 1963 concert footage. Research shows that Mag Rack users are already twice as likely to buy PPV, so features like that on Ray and a current Sideways featurette might help turn that propensity into an actual purchase.

But with the modest successes of existing program genres, executives think Mama Gena is the show that will finally bring them the big consumer buzz.

“It certainly fits in with our tagline: TV for Whatever Turns You On,” Ronayne said.

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