NEW YORK -Last week, Oxygen received two welcome gifts for its first birthday: a new TV series from Oprah Winfrey and 1 million additional subscribers.
This season, the network will premiere a Winfrey-created primetime series that focuses on real-life heroes. The yet-to-be-named half-hour-which Oxygen investor, co-founder, women's guru and ratings magnet Winfrey will host and executive-produce-is slated for 12 episodes.
"I want viewers to open their hearts and see the world in a different way.and know that you get from the world what you give to the world," Winfrey said in a statement.
Oxygen's carriage also will get a 1 million subscriber boost in the first quarter. Such new markets as New Orleans and Orange County, Calif., will take its distribution up to 13.7 million homes.
Since its launch last Feb. 2-and based on viewer feedback-Oxygen has decided to shift its focus from informational shows, adding more entertainment programming to its schedule this year. For its second season, the lineup will include movies and such off-network fare as Xena: Warrior Princess.
Oxygen CEO Geraldine Laybourne said Winfrey came to the network with the idea for the new show about heroic women.
"She's met a lot of women like this through her [syndicated] show," Laybourne said. "She'll use this half-hour to expand on the personal profiles and highlight these extraordinary women. This is so close to Oprah's heart."
Winfrey already has created one series for Oxygen, Oprah Goes Online, a step-by-step Internet tutorial for women. Laybourne said that series received a strong response and generated traffic for its companion Web site.
The news of Winfrey's second Oxygen series comes in the wake of yet another story claiming the super-popular talk show host has lost interest in the fledgling women's channel. A recent report in Forbes
claimed Winfrey was displeased with the network.
Laybourne maintained that Winfrey remains active with Oxygen in various capacities. For example, she serves on the steering committee that sets its vision and direction.
"We never thought Oprah would be involved in the day-to-day management of Oxygen," Laybourne said.
Winfrey's office issued a statement with the talk-show diva's take on Oxygen's progress.
"What we've realized in the past year is that it is more difficult in today's climate than any of us imagined to launch a new cable channel with all new programming," Winfrey said. "My creative energies continue to focus on helping Oxygen grow."
Next year, Oxygen will have access to Winfrey's entire TV library-including episodes of her syndicated daytime talk show, Laybourne pointed out.
"She is in the process of thinking about how to format them now [for Oxygen]," Laybourne said.
Oxygen later this year will air two movies from Harpo Productions Inc., Winfrey's production company: There Are No Children Here
Those movies, which previously aired on ABC, will be new to cable.
Oxygen in April is launching a second new series, Your Money and Your Life.
Its host is financial expert and columnist Laura Pedersen, the youngest person to ever have a seat on the floor of the American Stock Exchange.
"She's a real self-made woman," Laybourne said. "We've been looking for that kind of charismatic personality. She has that in her DNA." Oxygen said the network will roll out to 1 million new subscribers in the first quarter, with total distribution commitments for almost 32 million homes by the end of 2002.
In the first quarter, Oxygen will be available in 26 additional markets, including: Buffalo, N.Y.; Orange County, Calif.; New Orleans; Monterey, Calif.; Roanoke, Va.; Santa Barbara, Calif.; Niagra Falls, N.Y; and Colorado Springs, Colo. Buffalo will add 300,000 homes; Orange County, 215,000.
Insight Communications Co., Charter Communications Inc., Cox Communications Inc. and AT&T Broadband will roll out Oxygen in those markets.
Late last year, Oxygen received a $100-million cash infusion late last year from billionaire (and Charter chairman) Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures. Shortly after announcing that new financing, Oxygen laid off 10 percent of its staff, aiming to streamline its Web businesses.
Negative press accounts and reviews have battered the fledgling network. But even though it's not yet available in large pockets of the U.S., awareness of Oxygen is up, Laybourne said. A recent Myers Reports survey found Oxygen is one of the new networks advertisers are most interested in, she said.
While she is happy with the progress Oxygen has made in improving its two-hour live daily Pure Oxygen
show-and with its expanding forays into sports and animation- Laybourne admitted she'd like to see better progress on the carriage front.
"Distribution is right on our business plan," she said. "Am I happy? No. I want more. But given the climate, I think we're doing pretty well."
America Online Inc., which recently completed its merger with Time Warner Inc., is an Oxygen Media investor. AOL Time Warner has indicated that Time Warner Cable will now give carriage to its Turner Broadcasting System Inc. cable networks, such as CNN Money (formerly CNNfn).
But an Oxygen spokeswoman said the women's network doesn't expect any preferential treatment.