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Passing ‘50,' Oxygen Seeks Signature

The little engine that could finally did, as independently owned channel Oxygen recently surpassed the 50 million subscriber mark.

With that distribution milestone passed — along with profitable returns — the network is seeking to better define and promote its brand through original programming, said Oxygen Media chairman and CEO Geraldine Laybourne.

The four year-old service — owned by Laybourne, Carsey-Werner-Mandabach Productions, Harpo Productions (Oprah Winfrey's company), Time Warner Inc., Vulcan Ventures Inc. and Clarity Partners — struggled to gain distribution early on in its competition for female viewers with then-surging Lifetime Television.

Laybourne said Oxygen's primary hurdle — its insistence on analog-basic carriage — has turned out to be its biggest asset. About 95% of its distribution is with analog customers in an environment in which independent networks mostly gain carriage on cable tiers that require subscribers to have a digital set-top.

Laybourne said Oxygen has deals with every major MSO and direct-broadcast satellite service, except for EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network.

“We insisted on analog carriage and it's worked out in the long run for us,” Laybourne said. “We will probably be the last independent to surpass 50 million households.”

Laybourne also said the network will turn a profit for the first time this year.

Oxygen president of programming Debby Beece said the focus is on creating a signature program to help define the network and the brand.

The network has had several strong performers in Women Behaving Badly, Talk Sex With Sue Johanson and Oprah After The Show. But so far, it has lacked a true breakthrough hit.

In April, Oxygen will debut its first live-action scripted series, tentatively titled My Roommate Is a Big Fat Slut, produced by Carsey-Werner-Mandabach. Several other shows in development could produce that signature hit.

“You want to have that show that defines the network, and I think we'll have that soon,” Beece said.

Oxygen says it has successfully wooed younger viewers to what Beece describes as “playful and fun” programming. “We don't have any drama on the network,” she said, unlike closest competitor Lifetime.

To support its case, Oxygen says it currently ranks fifth among basic-cable networks in primetime in attracting 18-to-49-year-old women in the viewers per viewing household (VPVH) category. It trails SoapNet, TLC, Discovery Health Channel and VH1.

Beece said Oxygen also wants to develop at least one original movie a year. The first foray, Tale of Two Wives, generated a 0.6 rating.

Overall, Oxygen's household ratings have increased by 60% in total day and 50% in primetime from 2002 to 2003, according to the network. (Nielsen Media Research didn't begin rating Oxygen until the second quarter of 2003, so 2002 numbers were supplied by the network.)