FRESH TELEVISION FOR WOMEN CAMPAIGN
The Oxygen Network was the centerpiece of Oxygen Media, an entertainment company that catered to an exclusively female audience via television and the Internet. The network's 2000 introduction had not been as successful as the company had hoped, and by 2002 it was languishing behind industry leader Lifetime, the most popular network in all of cable TV, with a 2.0 rating share and access to more than 80 million households. Oxygen hoped that 2002 would be the start of a major turnaround. That year the company partnered with AOL Time Warner to integrate Oxygen's Web content with that of AOL. The deal also helped Oxygen break into Time Warner Cable's coveted market of New York subscribers, which would give Oxygen access to an additional 10 million households.
To help attract viewers in this new market, Oxygen contacted the Wenham, Massachusetts, agency Mullen, which had developed a critically acclaimed spot for the network's initial launch. Mullen's new campaign for 2002 consisted of a television spot that was cut into 30- and 60-second versions. The spot started at a beauty pageant in midcentury America in which a contestant was asked what she would do to make the world a better place. The spot cut into her answer to jump forward though other beauty pageants, each one taking place in an ensuing decade, such as the 1960s and the 1970s, until the final "answer" to the question, given in the present, was a call for more accurate depictions of women in the media. The satirical spot closed with the tagline "Fresh Television for Women."
While Oxygen was too far behind Lifetime to entirely close the gap, the spot did help the network acquire some forward momentum. By 2005 it had gained access to more than 55 million households, and Oxygen Media was generating advertising revenue in excess of $46 million per year.
The Oxygen Network was an independent cable station owned by Oxygen Media, a company founded by former Nickelodeon CEO Geraldine Laybourne and a group of highly successful partners, including TV personality Oprah Winfrey and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. The network was introduced in 2000 with a highly praised spot aired during Super Bowl XXXIV. At the time Oxygen was only available in about 6 million homes. The cable network was designed to be integrated closely with the company's website, oxygen.com. The website was intended to serve as the lynchpin of Oxygen Media's e-commerce business. Unfortunately, the telecommunications industry crash in 2000 and 2001 damaged Oxygen Media's Internet business, and it quickly had to drop its e-commerce operations.
The Oxygen network also fell on tough times, a result in part of its odd mix of programming. It featured talk shows, syndicated reruns, animation, fashion programming, and game shows. This hurt its efforts to forge an identity against specialized cable stations such as the Game Show Network, the Cartoon Network, and more established female-oriented networks, such as Lifetime. Oxygen Media also experienced a financial crunch after spending $75 million to develop original programming for the network, only to see most of those programs, like the critically reviled magazine show Pure Oxygen, fail to find an audience.
Oxygen Media hoped that 2002 would signal a turnaround. In September of that year the Oxygen Network was scheduled to begin broadcasting reruns of the popular Oprah Winfrey Show. The program, hosted by one of the network's key supporters, was the most popular daytime talk show in the United States and had helped make Oprah Winfrey one of the most famous people in the world.
More importantly, the network was able to access new markets. Oxygen Media partnered with AOL Time Warner in 2002, allowing AOL to handle advertising sales on oxygen.com. This helped the network break into Time Warner Cable's New York market. By April 2001 the network was still only available in 13 million homes, not enough to compete with Lifetime or WE, the other two major women's networks. The addition of 10 million households via Time Warner Cable, including more than 1 million viewers in New York City itself, meant that by the end of 2002 Oxygen would be available in 30 million homes. The network wanted to hit the ground running with a new national campaign. In effect Oxygen would be relaunching itself for its new viewers.
Oxygen's core demographic was 18- to 49-year-old women, especially those who were career-oriented. Some of the company's detractors felt that this demographic was too broad for the world of cable television. Many cable stations were narrower in focus; for example, MTV zeroed in on 13- to-18-year-olds. Oxygen's wide reach was blamed for its occasionally scattered programming.
The network's biggest draw in the early 2000s was reruns of the syndicated program Xena: Warrior Princess, a campy show that attracted teenagers and gay men in addition to women. This audience differed greatly from the middle-aged women who tuned in to watch reruns of the 1980s and 1990s sitcoms, such as Cybill and Kate and Allie, that the network also aired.
To help find its voice, Oxygen started including more original programming. Its morning exercise program Inhale featured yoga; in contrast, competitors such as Lifetime offered more traditional aerobics fare. It was hoped that this would help the network draw a younger audience than Lifetime and other competitors. After focus groups indicated that the network was too "preachy," Oxygen made an effort to infuse its programming with wit and flare. It introduced a fashion talk show hosted by the comedian Tracey Ullman and another talk show starring the well-known (and colorful) fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. Such light and irreverent fare was part of the attempt to forge the identity of the Oxygen Network.
The network also wanted people in the ad-buying industry to see that Oxygen was a company on the rise and a potentially strong partner for advertisers. Thus, the network's new availability in New York City gave it the opportunity to connect with another audience: the ad buyers who lived and worked in Manhattan. Oxygen's presence in the United States' largest television market was seen as a major step in becoming an industry player.
Oxygen was faced with a crowded marketplace. Several additional networks were aimed at the same female audience. The most important competitors were the Lifetime and WE (Women's Entertainment) networks. Access to the New York market was essential, because it boosted Oxygen's availability to 30 million homes. This brought it closer to WE, which was available to 44 million households by the early 2000s. Neither network, however, was able to match the availability of Lifetime, which had access to more than 80 million homes.
Lifetime was introduced in 1984, and by 2002 it had become the gold standard for women's television. The network had a good pedigree, as it was a joint venture by two successful entertainment conglomerates, the Walt Disney Company and the Hearst Corporation. In fact, with a 2.0 average daily Nielsen rating, Lifetime had been the most-watched cable network in the entire United States since 2001. Lifetime's ratings were still climbing by up to 18 percent per year. It had even managed to spin off a successful sister network, the Lifetime Movie Network. Lifetime's calling card was its original films that focused on women's issues, some of which drew praise from such organizations as the women's-rights advocate NOW (National Organization for Women).
In contrast to Oxygen, Lifetime had a specific focus on families and sensational "victim" stories (movies about, for example, women in abusive relationships or fighting breast cancer). This helped it form a cohesive identity for viewers. Lifetime also had the advantage of being the first female-oriented network. As a result it was earning more than $500 million per year in advertising by 2002; in comparison, Oxygen had about $20 million in ad sales. This had the effect of making Lifetime's Web portal more successful as well, enabling lifetimetv.com to draw major advertisers, including General Motors.
Meanwhile, WE, which had previously shunned advertising, was looking to offer up-front commercial time to advertisers for the first time in 2002. Although commercials would be limited to about eight minutes every hour, this would still dilute the potential advertising base for Oxygen.
Oxygen hired the Mullen advertising agency to develop a new commercial that would help the network reach new viewers. Mullen, based in Wenham, Massachusetts, had also handled the company's first television spot. That original spot had featured a maternity ward where the newborn girls rejected the pink caps that the hospital had placed on their heads. This was meant to show that Oxygen would not cater to female stereotypes.
Mullen's new spot would convey a similar message, but because the network was now more mature, it would require new imagery to do so. The new commercial focused the action on a beauty pageant. Such pageants, with their strict codes of traditional femininity, were an obvious foil for Oxygen, which wanted to appeal to career-oriented women. The spot would subvert this beauty-pageant femininity with a more feminist message designed to bolster the network's image.
In 2000 Oxygen Media introduced the Oxygen Network, a television network dedicated to women-centered programming. Though Oxygen was faced with strong competition from Lifetime, an established women-centered cable network known for its original movies, the network felt that it had a secret weapon: the support from talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
The Mississippi native first rose to prominence in 1984 when she became host of the struggling AM Chicago, a local program in Chicago. In 1985 the show was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show and began to be syndicated nationally. Within a year it was the most popular daytime talk show, besting such established stars as Phil Donahue. Oprah achieved even more fame after her successful acting performance in the 1985 film The Color Purple.
By the early 2000s Winfrey was one of the most famous people in the world, prompting Time magazine to name her one of the 100 most influential people of the twentieth century. Her talk show's "book club" was highly influential, introducing wide audiences to the work of authors such as Toni Morrison. She owned a successful production company, Harpo, and was a partner in Oxygen Media. In 2003 Forbes magazine disclosed that she was the first African-American woman to become a billionaire.
The commercial began at a pageant in post-World War II America. A young contestant was asked what she would do to make the world a better place. After she began to answer, the spot cut to a pageant set in the 1960s. After allowing that contestant to expand on the answer, the spot cut again to a 1970s pageant, and again to the 1980s, and then the 1990s. The final answer, after each decade's contestant had added to it, was: "I'd do my very best to make sure that every time you ever witness a woman in the media it would be sure to reveal her true complexities, not just the same old stereotypes that do an incredible disservice to all humanity." The spot closed with the tagline "Fresh Media for Women." Both 30- and 60-second versions of the spot were developed.
The spot underscored several points Oxygen wanted to make about itself. The first and most important was that Oxygen was a network for women, free from the stereotypes found on other networks. This somewhat feminist message would help the network reach out to the career-oriented young women that Oxygen wanted as viewers. It also showed some of the network's humor: the spot was clearly a satire on the traditional "femininity" put forth by beauty pageants, which often reduced women's worth to their appearance. Finally, the spot's passage through time gave the impression that Oxygen was a hip, modern network—not one stuck in the past like its competition. This was also important in attracting the younger demographic that Oxygen sought.
The "Fresh Media for Women" campaign was on balance a success. Critics loved the spots, and Oxygen's ratings continued to improve. While Lifetime remained the top network on cable, Oxygen began to draw more of an audience. In the wake of its access to the New York market, the network experienced an increase in its number of subscribers, and by 2005 the network was available in more than 55 million households nationwide.
Though none of Oxygen's shows became a breakout hit in the way that Lifetime's original movies were, combined advertising sales from the Internet and network were a healthy $46.5 million by 2004. The network broadened its talk-show offering to include the Emmy-winning program The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the The Tyra Banks Show, as well as a call-in show about sex and sexuality, Talk Sex. The partnership with AOL Time Warner paid especially big dividends for the website, which by 2003 had more than 200 advertisers and generated greater revenue than the network itself.
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Guy Patrick Cunningham