Oxygen Puts Up a Fight for Women

Jan 9, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Since Oxygen’s 2000 debut the independently owned network has positioned itself as a more bawdy alternative to the matronly sensibility of fellow women’s networks Lifetime and WE.

But its latest program has the channel’s least feminine concept to date: women beating each other up.

In “Fight Girls,” six female fighters train in Thai boxing and compete against each other for a chance to travel to Thailand and compete in a championship contest for a title belt. Though other reality fighting shows have recently thrived on Spike TV (“Ultimate Fighter”) and ESPN (“The Contender”), female fighting is relatively untested. Oxygen is presenting the program as a two-hour “reality event” to gauge viewer reaction to the concept. In other words, will women want to watch women fighting?

Oxygen President of Programming and Marketing Debby Beece said she wrestled with the same question when she watched a videotaped presentation of girls boxing by producers Scott Messick and Tom Webber. When her assistant exclaimed, “That kicks ass!” she decided to place the order.

“We’re getting braver all the time, and my goal is to be as brave as possible,” Ms. Beece said. “I put ‘Xena’ on the air, and I think it’s a fantasy for women to be able to defend themselves and fight. For younger viewers, it will be interesting, though I’m not sure the older viewers will necessarily watch. You want to go to the edge but not go off the cliff.”

The move echoes two recent programming threads at the network: trying high concepts as specials and ordering tough, girl-power content-not putting the demo on a pedestal.

Last fall the network scored record ratings with its plus-

size beauty pageant special “Mo’Nique’s Fat Chance.” Though a renewal has not yet been announced, executives described a return of the show as likely, perhaps in an expanded form.

On the content side, the network recently announced “The Janice Dickinson Project,” a modeling contest that’s sure be a more hard-core take on the industry than UPN’s “America’s Next Top Model,” where Ms. Dickinson was an acerbic judge.

Other tough-girl programming includes “Suburban Shootout” (a United Kingdom export: “Desperate Housewives” with guns), “Snapped” (re-enactments of stories about women who killed their husbands) and the upcoming action-thriller “Banshee” (an original movie about a car thief).

Programming is being supported by a new ad campaign created by New York boutique agency Toy, which has launched Oxygen’s first show-specific ad campaign-an $8 million effort for “Campus Ladies,” a raunchy comedy about two middle-aged women who return to college.

Oxygen has just come off its best year, up 18 percent among both total viewers and 18 to 49 in prime time. But the network still averages around 200,000 viewers, just ahead of WE for a distant second place to the top 10-ranked Lifetime.

As with all networks in its ratings range, the channel is still seeking a breakout series. “Campus Ladies” and “Dickinson,” which the network will feature at its Television Critics Association press tour panel, are the current best hopes. Among genres the network has learned to avoid are talk shows, animation and formats already saturating other networks (such as makeover shows and docu-soaps).

Many midsize networks have made high-profile off-network acquisitions to help bring new viewers to a channel, but Oxygen hasn’t been publicly linked to a major property since it bid for “Sex and the City” 2 years ago (and lost to TBS).

“We haven’t gone for anything since then,” a spokeswoman said. “We’re always looking, but we haven’t found anything that we loved as much as ‘Sex and the City.'”