Laybourne Revamps Oxygens Primetime

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NEW YORK -On the eve of its first anniversary, Oxygen plans to revamp its primetime schedule, placing more of an emphasis on entertainment than informational programming, officials at the fledgling women's network said.

Oxygen, which debuted last Feb. 2, will unveil its new lineup in January, said Geraldine Laybourne, president and CEO of Oxygen Media. There will also be some tweaking of the network's weekend and daytime schedule.

Oxygen's programming changes will debut just as Lifetime Television, which found a big hit in the new hour-long drama
Strong Medicine,

is about to premiere another primetime series,
Hearts of the City.

That weekly program, Lifetime's take on the cop-show genre, debuts Jan. 7.

Oxygen characterized its primetime program changes as simply the official start of its second season and not a relaunch.

Though Laybourne is sketchy about the precise changes that are coming, she said one of the channel's signature series, the 10 p.m. talk show
Exhale with Candice Bergen
, may get a new time slot.

"You may see some schedule changes with that," said Laybourne, who is close to securing a third round of financing for Oxygen.

Oxygen has already commissioned a second season of
Exhale,

the show that has probably garnered the most media attention of any of the network's programming. In its first season, Bergen interviewed roughly 100 guests, including marquee names like Hillary Clinton and Jodie Foster.

For next year, Oxygen-which launched with a promise of nearly all-original programming-has acquired several series and movies. Some of these acquired series will probably join Oxygen's lineup in 2001, a little earlier than the network had planned for adding such non-original fare to its schedule.

DISTRIBUTION GAP

One possibility is that Oxygen, which already airs some acquired movies during the day, may also be adding such theatricals to primetime.

The nearly year-old Oxygen is now in 13 million homes, but has yet to secure substantial cable carriage in New York City, the home of Madison Avenue and Wall Street.

"Oxygen's doing pretty well for a year old," said Michael Goodman, a senior analyst for The Yankee Group. "But it's still a work in progress. Thirteen million homes is not bad distribution, but it's a starting point.

"They need to get coverage in New York and they need to find programming that helps them break out in their niche."

Oxygen is on target with its business plan, according to Laybourne, who said she is satisfied with its progress. But the media industry's lofty expectations for Oxygen-and the constant scrutiny it gets-are problematic, she said.

"People expected us to come out of the box with 50 million homes," Laybourne said. "They expected us to have perfect programming. They expected us to have the highest ratings in cable. And it never was in our business plan, or in my mind, that was going to happen."

She added: "Everything is hard. It's hard finding a voice. It's hard getting advertising support. It's hard getting distribution. It's hard, and we have done remarkably well.

"We've hit every mark. I feel we have firm ground under our feet, and that comes from believing we're on the right track in terms of the voice, the employees we have."

Oxygen's partners-the TV hit makers Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach-now have "a bunch of comedies in development" for Oxygen, according to Laybourne. She expects some of those shows may be ready to go on the schedule in January.

"We're shooting for several of them to get to air, but we don't develop pilots and expect all of them to go to air," Laybourne said.

Oxygen's centerpiece daily show,
Pure Oxygen,

will also see some changes. Women's sports coverage, already a fixture during the weekends, will be expanded. Some sports coverage will be integrated into
Pure Oxygen,

Laybourne said.

WE'RE JUST TWEAKING

"The mission of sports is to get great recognition for women in sports," she said.

When the network launched, Oxygen's programming was panned by some TV critics. Since then, Laybourne has done some reassessing, which led to the primetime changes in the works for January.

"We know that we've hit on the right idea," she said. "We know that women want something that reflects their intelligence, and their status in the world today and how modern women attack life and life's issues.

"We know that we've created 15 brand-new shows from scratch, and that with some of them, we're really hitting the right note and the right audience. And some of them we're continuing to tweak."

Laybourne said viewers like Oxygen's wide diversity of talent-and women-and the fact that it has a variety of programming genres, from sports to animation to talk. But she believes women want more entertainment-oriented shows from the network.

"Yes, women like the information," she said. "They like the attitude. They like the wide variety, but they want more entertainment, especially in primetime.

"They're just not ready to stretch their thinking, they just don't want it. They want entertainment. So that's what you'll see from us."

One of the schedule changes Oxygen had already made was
Pure
Oxygen
's move out of primetime. The show airs live from noon to 2 p.m., and would then be repeated from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. This summer, Oxygen moved
Pure Oxygen

to 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., and put the documentary series
As She Sees It

at 8 p.m.

One reason
Pure Oxygen

was switched from primetime was that Oxygen felt it was being viewed as a talk-show network. "That perception that we were all-talk wasn't correct, when you think about the amount of time we have for sports and animation and comedy," Laybourne said. "But because
Pure Oxygen

was in such a highly visible place, we got that reputation."

The documentary show that replaced
Pure Oxygen

in primetime has performed pretty well, she added.

"
As She Sees It

was a real surprise to me," Laybourne said. "It's a documentary series that are all these great documentaries made by women, that just haven't had a place on TV. It's just a wide range of topics, the serious to the sublime."

When
Pure Oxygen

went on summer hiatus, it prompted a spurt of negative stories about Oxygen, even though networks typically put shows on summer hiatus without any press fanfare.

The network is banking that
X-Chromosome
, an animation showcase, will be a source of hit programming. "We think it's easier with animation to find those breakouts," Laybourne said.

In its first season, Oxygen green-lit 11 animated shorts for
X-Chromosome
. Executives think four have the potential to be full-fledged series-and potential hits. Carsey is working on producing long-form versions of those four, according to Laybourne. Her husband Kit is Oxygen's head of animation and special projects.

Oxygen has scored some successes with its animation, and is experimenting with desktop animation. Oxygen's animation, including
The Ruth Truth,

won two animation awards so far, at the Ottawa Animation Festival and the Digital Animation Festival.

After some turnover in Oxygen's programming department, Laybourne recently appointed a former Nickelodeon colleague, Debby Beece, as president of programming. Beece will work in concert with Geoffrey Darby, Oxygen's president of production.

Laybourne credited Beece, who has been a consultant with Oxygen since the spring, with helping to hone Oxygen's on-air look.

"We found the voice of Nickelodeon first in on-air promotion," Laybourne said. "What wasn't right about Oxygen when we started was that it looked great, but it didn't have the nuance that we needed. It wasn't getting the humor right.

"We're now really way far down that road. So her talents are manifold. She's great at finding what that voice is. It's an amazing art."

LIFETIME SURGES

While Oxygen tinkers with its primetime lineup, Lifetime has enjoyed a banner year in terms of its nightly ratings and original series. In the third quarter, for example, in primetime Lifetime posted a 1.8 rating, trailing only USA Network, Cartoon Network and TBS Superstation, according to Nielsen Media Research.

In July, Lifetime added the hour-long drama
Strong Medicine

to a Sunday night block that also includes the original
Any Day Now. Strong Medicine

has performed very well, debuting with a 2.3 rating and now averaging a 1.9 rating, according to Tim Brooks, Lifetime's senior vice president of research.

The new cop show
Hearts of the City

-with a cast that includes Lela Rochon, Bonnie Bedelia and Nancy McKeon-will also most likely join Lifetime's Sunday lineup of originals.

"That gives us a block from 8 p.m. to 11, and being able to brand that is very effective for a network," Brooks said. "Sci Fi Channel and USA have done that [scheduled nights of original series], but no one had done that for women. We're trying to solidify our brand: that is what is behind building out Sunday night."

Pointing to the success of
Any Day Now

and
Strong Medicine,

Lifetime executive vice president of entertainment Dawn Tarnofsky-Ostroff said: "We're continuing to grow on the strength of our primetime franchises.
Any Day Now
has become a signature show. And
Strong Medicine

really hit a chord. Women are concerned about health issues. So women watch it to be entertained and to be informed."

Unlike the well-established Lifetime, Oxygen is still building awareness. Because it is a stand-alone network without sister services to use for cross-promotion, Oxygen has had to be inventive about promoting its attributes.

"They're building something from scratch here," analyst Goodman said. "They have to do it all on their own. It's not like Turner networks, where there is an infrastructure in place. There's nothing for them to piggyback off of."

Oxygen has invented a stunt strategy in order to promote itself, Laybourne said. On Dec. 1, for example, in recognition of World AIDS Day, Oxygen will air a special primetime edition of
Trackers

called
Trackers Connects: Talking Sex

that will include a satellite hook-up with youth in South Africa.

FINANCING UPDATE

Laybourne is also proud of Oxygen's digital-production lab, where her staff is training to shoot and edit with 60 digital cameras. The technology will allow Oxygen to get closer to stories, according to Laybourne, and to abandon the typical assembly line of normal TV production.


Pure Oxygen

will be incorporating field pieces done with these digital cameras, and Oxygen will also try to use them in its comedies and narrative storytelling Laybourne claims Oxygen is "right on track; we'll probably announce it ahead of schedule," in terms of finishing its third round of financing, which had been scheduled. Oxygen has a $400 million programming budget over four years.

Investors so far include The Walt Disney Co.'s ABC Inc., America Online Inc. and Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Entertainment Group. In addition, Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures Inc. has put $100 million into Oxygen, while LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton has invested $122 million. Oxygen has had talks with media companies-including Viacom Inc., NBC, Time Warner Inc. and E.W. Scripps Co.-about financing and programming alliances, according to Laybourne. But she denied that she is selling a large stake in the company.

Currently, Oxygen has commitments for 32.8 million homes by 2003, with agreements with Adelphia Communications Corp., AT&T Broadband, Charter Communications Inc., Cox Communications Inc., Insight Communications Co. and DirecTV Inc.

But a deal with Time Warner Cable, which would give Oxygen entrée to New York City-still hasn't been struck. RCN Corp., an Oxygen investor, does carry the service in the Big Apple.

"They have gotten a lot of bad press, but I think their ability to line up 32 million subscribers is impressive," said Derek Baine, a senior analyst at Paul Kagan Associates Inc.

The average cable network, according to Kagan research, garners 12.9 million subscribers in year one; 24 million in year two; and 33.6 million homes by year three, although that average has fallen in recent years, Baine said.

So Oxygen's 13 million subscribers is right in line with historical averages, he added.

Laybourne said Oxygen is where she thought it would be now, in terms of its business plan, despite the skeptics.

"To me, there's a perverse part of me that says, you know what, I spent my whole career climbing uphill when people didn't believe we were going to make it with Nickelodeon, so maybe this is good," Laybourne said. "Maybe the fact the world thinks we're not going to make it is a good thing, because now we're not carrying around this heavy, heavy expectation that we're going to walk on water. We're not going to walk on water."

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