Magazine article Newsweek

The Birth of a Network: With Oxygen Media, Oprah Winfrey and Gerry Laybourne Are Trying to Create TV History. Will Women Watch?

Magazine article Newsweek

The Birth of a Network: With Oxygen Media, Oprah Winfrey and Gerry Laybourne Are Trying to Create TV History. Will Women Watch?

Article excerpt

In a cramped conference room in New York City pressure is mounting, and for good reason. Oxygen Media, the most audacious entertainment start-up in decades, is just three months from launch, and the channel desperately needs a show with hit potential. Oxygen, a television and Internet company aimed at women, must make an immediate bond with viewers to have any hope of success. Yet with the Feb. 2 premiere date (02/02--get it?) fast approaching, critical aspects of the schedule are still up in the air. So a dozen key executives have gathered to set just the right tone for a block of Oxygen's animated shows, each starring a different female character. Should the cartoons be irreverent or family-focused? Character-driven or abstract? Can anything here hold the audience?

Tension mounts. "Do you mind if we walk through a little exercise?" asks CEO Geraldine Laybourne, as she pushes back from the table, tugs at her black leather jacket and takes charge of the room. Laybourne opens a giant white work pad and engages her managers in a word-association game to zero in on the tone of each show--irreverent, introspective, bitchy, sexy. They work through the lineup. Three hours after they entered the room, the re-energized group has hashed out a hip, eclectic roster of animated shows that just might contain a buzz-creating hit after all. The leading contender? "Breakup Girl," about a superhero who flies through the air and helps women escape doomed relationships.

It will take more than Breakup Girl's superpowers to get Oxygen through the next few months. Oxygen is undertaking a task of daunting proportions: building a new cable network from the ground up, without relying on the reruns and old movies that have been used to start new channels in the past. Laybourne's ambitious charge to her frazzled staff is to kick off with 55 hours of original shows per week. But any viewer of prime-time TV knows how hard it is to produce just one mildly entertaining half hour of television. Some staffers are already grumbling that there's no way they can make their February deadline with sets unbuilt and talent still to be hired. Early creative efforts have already stumbled. Critics panned the Oxygen Web site when it debuted in May. The page designs weren't bold enough, the content wasn't rich enough and it was too tough to navigate.

Beyond the enormous creative challenges, the company faces a host of ugly business hurdles. Oxygen will be in 10 million homes to start off. But in New York and Los Angeles, where many important advertisers, TV critics, producers and actors live, viewers won't be able to watch it, because Laybourne hasn't been able to persuade the cable companies in those cities to sign up her new channel. Equally scary, Oxygen has landed only a couple of major advertisers, including Hewlett-Packard and children's product company Right Start. And competitors like fast-growing Internet company iVillage are gaining credibility and backing as dominant forces in the women's market. All the while the bicoastal media world is watching intently, relishing the prospect of the much-hyped venture's stumbling out of the starting gate.

Despite the Himalayan obstacles, even skeptics aren't counting Oxygen out. That's largely because of Laybourne, 52, the programming whiz who turned kids' channel Nickelodeon into an $8 billion brand and sparked a rebirth of the animation business. Her partners include sit-com phenoms Carsey-Werner-Mandabach (creators of "The Cosby Show," "Roseanne" and "Third Rock From the Sun"). And there's Oxygen's nuclear weapon, Oprah Winfrey, one of the most powerful brand names in the entertainment industry. In addition to lending her stature, Winfrey will host "Oprah Goes Online," where she will, as she puts it, "release her Internet shame" and help women conquer cyberspace. (Given Oprah's sway over her fans, insiders say she could eventually have the same influence on the Web as she does on the book industry. …

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