Oxygen Does Sports A Little Differently


About halfway through the interview, on-air host Lydia Stephans gets Lyn St. James to open up about the effects of menopause.

"This is the first time that I've truly felt different," said St. James. "I'm different from the guys."

The program, which runs on Oxygen, isn't about women's health. It's a sports interview show called Sports Aside.

And the interview with St. James — the first woman ever to race in the Indianapolis 500 — follows a similar routine: Sports records and accomplishments are a key focus, but so are the interview subject's personal and family life.

In addition to hosting Sports Aside, Stephans oversees Oxygen's sports programming efforts as president of Oxygen Sports, a position she took in 1999 after working for more than a decade at ABC Sports, most recently as vice president of programming.

Stephans originally hadn't planned to take an on-air role at Oxygen, but stepped in as host after the network rescheduled the shooting of the pilot for the Sports Aside, and the original host couldn't attend. "Be careful what you volunteer for in life," Stephans joked.

Stephans, who was an Olympic speed skater before joining ABC, has her work cut out for, her at Oxygen. The network has struggled for distribution and financing since its launch in 1998 and has laid off dozens of employees and scaled back its Internet plans. It obviously doesn't have the coffers of an ESPN to shell out millions of dollars for expensive sports rights.

But Stephans said her division hasn't been affected by the cuts. "They have been really generous in terms of support of sports, and my budget has stayed the same," she said.

In addition to Sports Aside, which runs Fridays at 7 p.m., Oxygen carries live and taped sports event programming on Saturdays and Sundays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

The network's coverage has included women's college basketball, snowboarding, beach volleyball, rodeo and bike racing.

One unique aspect of the network's sports coverage t is the time spent explaining each sport to the viewers.

For example, during last month's coverage of the HP Women's Challenge bicycle race — the women's version of the Tour de France — the announcers took several minutes to explain the rules of stage racing.

Oxygen is trying to attract viewers who don't typically watch sports, thus broadening the audience, Stephans said. "The hard-core sports fan more likely than not is going to tune into a Fox Sports [Net] or an ESPN and watch their sports live," she added.

Pilson Communications president Neal Pilson said Oxygen is taking a moderate approach to sports programming by only offering a few hours of sports each week.

"I think women traditionally watch other forms of entertainment in large numbers than watch sports, but I think they [Oxygen] want to have a balanced presentation, and sports is certainly part of the women's universe," said Pilson.

Pilson, who also works as a consultant for the Women's Tennis Association, said he is also talking to Oxygen about possibly carrying some WTA events.