Oxygen Turns to Its Stars

Feb 28, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Five-year-old cable network Oxygen, which targets women, plans to launch its biggest ad campaign ever.

In the early years Oxygen put celebrities, including Madonna, in its “Oh!”-themed ads to raise interest in the fledgling channel. “This time, the talent in the campaign is all talent that’s participating with Oxygen and on our air,” said Geraldine Laybourne, chairman and CEO of Oxygen Media.

The spots feature Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, Fabio, Joseph Lawrence, Fred Willard, Illeana Douglas, Swoosie Kurtz, Sue Johanson and Tamala Jones. They will begin airing in local markets March 1, in time to promote “Mr. Romance,” a comic search for the next Fabio, and the movie “Confessions of a Sociopathic Social Climber,” starring Ms. Love Hewitt.

The spots also feature music by Fatboy Slim from the film “Moulin Rouge,” which is airing on Oxygen.

By featuring stars of shows and movies on the network, “We’re able not only to give the spirit of Oxygen but also in a pretty direct way promote the product that’s on Oxygen,” Ms. Laybourne said. “So it’s not just an image campaign. It’s not a tune-in campaign per se, but more product-specific.”

Ms. Laybourne said Oxygen turned a corner last year and is now running in the black. “We’re cash-flow-positive. I had no idea that would be my favorite phrase,” she said.

According to Kagan Research, Oxygen generated $123 million in net revenues and had expenses of $120.9 million, including $75.7 million in programming costs. That slim profit followed losses of $189 million over the network’s first four years.

But to get to the next level, to be competitive with mature networks such as Lifetime, the network needs some hits. “We’ve had shows that if they had been on an established network would have broken out more. But we have to have two solid breakout hits, and we have to do more marketing,” said Ms. Laybourne, who just last week had arthroscopic surgery on her knee to treat a skiing injury.

But she likes the network’s position now.

“Launching a brand-new brand from scratch is a time-consuming and somewhat messy process. You try stuff, it doesn’t work. You try other stuff, it does work,” she said. “We’re at a point right now where it’s all kind of snowballing. Now we know who we are. The talent community knows who we are, so they’re bringing us shows that fit with who we are. Our outreach to talent is working.”

She wants the talent to come up with the kind of “creator-driven programming” that helped her find success during her days at Nickelodeon in the ’80s and ’90s.

She said Oxygen’s personality matches that of young women today: “It’s very independent, playful, smart and loaded with comedy.” And the network has been looking to develop comedy as movies and series.

Oxygen is aiming to produce one original movie per quarter. And some of those movies may spawn series, Ms. Laybourne said.

For example, Cheryl Hines starred in an Oxygen movie last year called “A Tale of Two Wives.” Now Oxygen is evaluating a pilot from Ms. Hines called “Campus Ladies.”

Similarly, Ms. Love Hewitt is starring in next month’s Oxygen movie “Confessions of a Sociopathic Social Climber.” Ms. Laybourne said Ms. Hewitt “loved the character. We’re in discussion to figure out if there’s more to do around that character and property.” Any plans for a sequel or series may have to wait because Ms. Hewitt has been cast in a pilot at CBS.

Ms. Laybourne said there are two more movies in the works, one a comedy. “I see enormous series potential in it,” she said.

The network is also looking at comedy pilots, including “Illeana-Rama” starring Illeana Douglas, and a sketch comedy show from Stone & Co. Entertainment.

Ms. Laybourne said the comedies attract a young female demographic that advertisers crave, and ad sales are pacing 79 percent ahead of last year.

“We’ve underpromised and overdelivered. And that is making us very popular with the advertisers,” she said. “We’ve also had a fair degree of success with nontraditional women’s advertisers. We don’t think that our women only buy feminine-hygiene products. They buy everything from cars to cable television. And advertisers are beginning to recognize that in automotive and wireless and financial services and travel and other categories that have higher [costs per thousand].”

`800-Pound Gorilla’

Distribution has also been growing. Oxygen is in 54 million homes, but that number could grow substantially if one holdout can be brought on board. “We still have a giant 800-pound gorilla of a distributor [to land]: EchoStar. We’re in discussions with EchoStar.” But she cautioned, “Everyone is in perpetual discussions with EchoStar.”

Ms. Laybourne said she is pleased with the network’s growth over five years. “We just had a management retreat where I wanted to have a flip chart to show people how we’re progressing in distribution and ratings and in CPM growth. And all of our vectors are basically going in the same direction, which is up, except one, which is the average age of our audience, which is going in the direction we want it to, which is down.”

The new ad campaign should also help boost the network’s profile, but Ms. Laybourne said already “people are talking about us much more than they were even a year ago.”

For example, she said her doctor was telling her at length how much he watches Oxygen shows such as “Girls Behaving Badly” and “Talk Sex With Sue Johanson,” while she “wanted him to do the operation already.”