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Women's Net Rivals Find Their Niche

They may not be all that threatening to Lifetime yet, but WE: Women's Entertainment, Oxygen and SoapNet are trying. Distribution is reaching critical mass, and, to varying degrees, all are broadening their original fare.

"They are all taken seriously," said Horizon Media Executive Vice President Aaron Cohen. "The audience is not duplicated, and they all offer programming that would not appeal to the others."

WE has 50 million subscribers, the biggest of the Lifetime challengers. SoapNet, in just about just 30 million homes, gets the highest ratings. And independent Oxygen has grown to 48 million subscribers without a big media parent to pave its way.

As they grow, their programming changes. WE will add three reality series and a scripted romantic comedy next year (details to come later this month). The Rainbow Media-owned channel plans two lighthearted original movies, one for fourth quarter 2003 and another for first quarter '04.

"We can produce more than just low-cost lifestyle programming now," said WE's Executive Vice President/General Manager Martin Von Ruden. He is working with about a $40 million programming budget, according to Kagan Media estimates.

WE also can afford to buy better off-net series, possibly including The WB's departing Dawson's Creek. It airs Felicity
and Two Guys and a Girl
now, which Von Ruden says have helped lower WE's median age to the mid 40s. (In its days as Romance Classics, WE attracted a rusty mid-50s median age). But those two series are good enough to attract only about a 0.3 rating, which is also WE's overall Nielsen prime time average.

At Oxygen, originals account for about 50% of the schedule. The channel is intensely focused on "hitting the funny bone," said programming chief Debbie Beece.

Two recent additions, acquired British hit Absolutely Fabulous
and Girls Behaving Badly,
started the comedic bent. This summer, Oxygen will add an animated comedy Hey Monie, co-produced with BET, and another Life's a Bitch
is in the works.

Oxygen is also preparing its first original movie, A Tale of Two Wives, for this summer. The channel plans to make one movie per quarter.

Who's watching? Who knows? Oxygen is one of the largest ad-supported cable channels that doesn't publicly disclose its Nielsen ratings, but its ratings are said to range from a 0.1 to a 0.3. It expects to subscribe to overnight ratings soon.

SoapNet, in contrast, has been publishing its ratings for some time. When early numbers look good, cable networks rush to publish them. SoapNet published its first marks (a 0.9 prime time average) in April 2001, when it was in just 9 million homes. Similarly, Lifetime Movie Network, now in 37 million homes, released ratings very early on.

As SoapNet has gained distribution, though, its ratings have fluctuated. In February, it averaged a 0.4 in prime, down 43% from the previous year. With growth, "we expect volatility," said Senior Vice President/General Manager Deborah Blackwell.

The Disney-owned soap-opera channel will telecast the Soap Opera Digest Awards next month, hosted by Soap Talk
hosts Lisa Rinna and Ty Treadway, and a red-carpet special for the Daytime Emmy Awards in May.