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EchoStar Adds Oxygen

EchoStar Communications’ fight with Lifetime Television has given a big leg up to rival woman’s network Oxygen, which has scored its first affiliation deal with the DBS operator.

EchoStar’s Dish Network will add Oxygen to a package received by 10 million of its customers. That will boost Oxygen’s subscriber base to 65 million.

EchoStar has been a major distribution hole for Oxygen. The network has negotiated on and off with the satellite company for years, with no success. But EchoStar has a new need for a women’s channel, having dropped Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network in a dispute over rates.

Oxygen CEO Gerry Laybourne says she beieves the channel would have secured an EchoStar deal soon, even without the Lifetime fight.

"We’ve been talking to them since this summer, since Carl came on board," she says, referring to Carl Vogel, former Charter Communications CEO. Vogel, who once served as EchoStar’s CFO, rejoined as vice chairman.

Carl and Laybourne have a good relationship in part because Charter’s controlling shareholder Paul Allen is also a major investor in Oxygen.

Isn’t Oxygen merely being used to blunt Lifetime’s own attacks on Echostar?

Lifetime is working to rally women’s groups to its cause, sponsoring rallies and paying for advertising. "I don’t feel used," Laybourne says. "I feel like they appreciate the fact that we have been consistent. We’ve been there, we’ve constantly worked with Echostar."

Laybourne does acknowledge that the two "ratcheted up the conversation late last week." The deal was finalized over the weekend and signed shortly before 5 a.m. ET. Monday.

A Lifetime spokesman says: "Clearly Oxygen is not a substitute for Lifetime and Lifetime movie networks, which are the No. 1- and No. 2-rated women’s networks."

The EchoStar deal comes as Oxygen is having a good run. Laybourne last fall finally filled another major distribution hole by cutting a deal with 21 million-sub cable operator Comcast.

The network's Nielsen ratings have always been low, ranking it below the likes of Headline News and The Weather Channel. But in the fourth quarter, Oxygen posted a strong 20% gain in total prime time viewers, averaging 226,000.

And new programming has been getting good marks, including Campus Girls and a new reality show featuring onetime model Janice Dickenson.