Sources cautioned that the discussions are still in the early stages and that a formal deal may not come together. It is understood that Wolf might wind up with a small equity stake in the revamped channel.
The discussions are a sign that even the largest cable programmers are feeling the pressure when it comes to under-performing channel assets. Oxygen has been in a ratings slump with few buzzy series to draw attention. In primetime, the network is down 12% in adults 18-49 — and 13% in women 18-49 — from 2015, in Nielsen’s live-plus-seven ratings. Its average primetime draw is 228,000 total viewers, with 99,000 in the 18-49 demographic, and 72,000 women in that demo. Oxygen already has taken steps to shift its programming focus by recently adding a “Crime-Time”-branded block of unscripted true-crime series on four days of the week, Friday-Monday, to capitalize on the growing interest in such docu fare. That block is producing 44% ratings gains over the year-ago performance.
As part of that “Crime-Time” block, Oxygen has put several project into development with the Universal TV-based Wolf Entertainment banner.
Oxygen Media was formed in 1999 in the heady days of the dot-com boom as a venture led by Geraldine Laybourne, with investors that included Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Oprah Winfrey. The channel launched as an independent outlet in February 2002 with a focus on female-oriented lifestyle and comedy programming. NBCUniversal bought the company in October 2007 for $925 million, including debt.
Under NBCUniversal, the channel’s focus shifted to celebrity-driven unscripted programming. In 2013, oversight of the channel was put under the direction of Frances Berwick, the exec who helped shape Bravo into a major player for NBCUniversal. Under Berwick, Oxygen has trained its focus on young multicultural women with aspirational reality shows and docu-series tied to distinctive subcultures.
But Oxygen’s ratings volatilty have made it vulnerable for subscriber losses at a time when traditional MVPDs are looking to tamp down on programming costs and create smaller bundles in an effort to combat cord-cutting. The threat of continued subscriber losses eating away at cable earnings has become a growing concern, even for congloms as big as NBCUniversal parent Comcast and Disney, which is battling the same problem with the erosion of ESPN’s subscriber base.
Within NBCU there has quietly been discussion about possible revamps of Oxygen along with other lower-profile channels in the group.
Wolf, meanwhile, has been on a roll for the past two seasons with the success of his “Chicago”-themed procedural drama series. He’s launched three shows 2012: “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago P.D.” and “Chicago Med,” with a fourth on the way in midseason: “Chicago Justice.” He’s also reviving the mothership “Law & Order” brand on NBC next year with limited series based on notorious true crime tales, starting with the Menendez brothers double-murder case.
Wolf’s “Law & Order: SVU” is in its 18th season on NBC. The mothership “Law & Order” produced some 456 episodes during its 1990-2010 run on NBC. “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” ran from 2001 to 2011 on NBC and USA Network.
With that kind of library, it’s no surprise there would be talk within NBCU about a Wolf drama-branded channel.
(Pictured: “Chicago P.D.”)