Oxygen: Oprah’s in the Air

Apr 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Those who cannot get enough of Oprah Winfrey during the day can turn to “Oprah After the Show,” a half-hour program taped specifically to run on Oxygen. That show is only a part of Ms. Winfrey’s involvement with the cable channel geared for women. As a co-founder of the Oxygen network, she is immersed in its growth and development.
“We approached her about being involved,” said Lisa Hall, chief operating officer, who worked with Oxygen CEO Geraldine Laybourne on the conception of the network.
“We thought, who was a better voice of women?” Ms. Hall said. “She liked the idea of Oxygen, and though she is based in Chicago and we are in New York, she wanted to play a role in facilitating the concept. We were thrilled.”
Ms. Winfrey became a key investor in Oxygen, along with Ms. Laybourne, the team of Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach, and Vulcan, venture capitalist Paul Allen’s company. Additionally, Tim Bennett, president of Ms. Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, sits on the Oxygen board of directors.
Though Ms. Winfrey’s stake is less than 20 percent, her intrinsic value to the company is far greater because of her ideas and presence and the following she brings with her.
Oxygen launched in February 2000 and is available in more than 51.4 million homes, reaching 95 percent of them through expanded cable. Ms. Hall said the network brought in more than $120 million in revenues during its last fiscal year and that, “We’re profitable.”
Ms. Winfrey, she said, contributed greatly to that rapid success, beginning by using the assets of Harpo, including O Magazine and Oprah.com, to reach the target audience of 18- to 49-year-old women, her core viewers.
But that is not all she has done. “She is not just a person who can communicate with everyone,” Ms. Hall said. “She is someone who does not get involved unless she will really be committed to the project.
“From the outset, she shared her ideas and her vision. We speak about projects and ideas frequently, and with Tim Bennett on our board, we have Oprah’s presence always.”
Mr. Bennett said Ms. Winfrey’s input into the network is significant. “I don’t think Oxygen’s voice differs that much from what Oprah is trying to do at Harpo,” he said.
In the early days Ms. Winfrey contributed one of the first successful series for Oxygen.
“Oprah was just becoming computer-literate,” Ms. Hall said, “and she thought the audience would want to learn about computer things with her. So she did a show along with her friend Gayle King called `Oprah Goes Online.’ It was huge for us, but after 13 episodes [actually, 12], there was no place else to go with it, really.”
That’s when the idea of “Oprah After the Show” was born. Taped directly after the hour-long “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” the half-hour may feature the guest from the syndicated program if he or she is available. It’s a chance for the audience to ask Ms. Winfrey questions, discuss the topic of the day or just perhaps talk about movies or events, as friends do in conversation.
“It’s really a pleasure to do it as an unscripted show,” said Ellen Rakieten, the executive producer of both of Ms. Winfrey’s shows, and an 18-plus-year veteran of Ms. Winfrey’s team.
“We just change some graphics and some lights and keep going,” Ms. Rakieten said. “We found that if we took a breather, the audience and everyone else lost the flow.”
More often than not, the guest or guests of the day are more than willing to participate in “After the Show.”
The more famous, syndicated talk show is timed at an hour and rarely needs to be edited down, but the half-hour “After” has been known to go longer than the allotted 30 minutes and must be edited before delivery to Oxygen.
“What we have found is that a lot of people tape Oprah’s daytime show and watch the two together, or use their TiVo to do so,” Ms. Hall said. “It also has increased Oprah’s audience, particularly among males and others who can’t watch her during the day.”
Oxygen announced in March that “Oprah After the Show” is renewed for a third season.
Because Harpo has a pact with ABC to provide programming for the network, chiefly telefilms and specials, there is a limit to what it can supply to Oxygen. Mr. Bennett said in some cases Oxygen can be the first tier to run such Harpo productions after the ABC arrangements are fulfilled.
The network has had success this past year with two original series, “Girls Behaving Badly” and “Talk Sex With Sue Johanson” as well as with the ongoing “Conversations From the Edge With Carrie Fisher,” which has been renewed for two more years. In March the network announced an ambitious new slate of programs, increasing its programming spending by $50 million this year.
Due to premiere June 4 is the network’s first scripted sitcom, “Good Girls Don’t Cry,” which is from producers Carsey-Werner-Mandabach. That company has also licensed to Oxygen “Living Single,” a sitcom starring Queen Latifah, which ran on Fox from 1993 to 1998.
From Cirrus Communications this summer will come another original comedy, “Naked Josh,” joined on the Friday night lineup by “Show Me Yours” from Barna-Alper Productions. This fall Oxygen will premiere its third original telefilm, “Tempting Adam.”
Additionally, it has ordered “Snapped,” a reality series about female criminals and what made them go bad, which will be paired on the schedule with “Women & The Badge,” a reality series that focuses on female cops.
“We’re involved in the marketing of the new shows,” Mr. Bennett said. “We’ve also helped Oxygen form a relationship with Comcast in Chicago.”
It all sounds good to Ms. Hall.
“When Oprah walks into a room, charisma walks in first,” she said. “Oprah is a force of nature. Her passion, her vision and her ideas are all incredible. She wants to make a difference in the world. Hers is a strong point of view that we not only listen to, we learn from.”