Oxygen plans left coast yakkers

Femme cabler breathes easy at Sunset-Gower

HOLLYWOOD – Although the launch date of new femme cabler and related Web site, Oxygen, is more than a month away — 02/02/2000, a clever reminder of the scientific symbol for Oxygen gas — L.A.’s TV production community can already feel its fresh air blowing in town.

Founded in 1998 by CEO Geraldine Laybourne, and partners Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner, Caryn Mandabach and Oprah Winfrey, Oxygen has ambitious plans of creating a recognizable new brand for women who want to recreate their lives, and being a convergence-friendly TV org where the Web component is just as strong as the on-air content.

A carriage agreement with Insight Communications, the eighth largest cable operator in the U.S., along with previous deals with AT&T Broadband, MediaOne and Paul Allen’s Charter Communications, will bring 10 million subscribers to the fledgling cabler by February.

Although the corporate offices of Oxygen Media are based in Manhattan, the Carsey-Werner-Mandabach arm of the org has several projects in production in Los Angeles.

According to Courtney Conte, Oxygen’s senior VP of production, seven shows are currently in production on the West Coast. “In December, we’ll start shooting five days a week, 12 hours a day at the Sunset-Gower studios to be ready for our February launch.”

Conte, who is also responsible for overseeing production of Carsey-Werner’s “3rd Rock from the Sun,” “Cosby,” “That ’70s Show” and “God, the Devil and Bob,” says his company was lucky to find a home for its new shows at Sunset-Gower studios, thanks to a last-minute cancellation by one of NBC’s Saturday morning shows.

He adds, “It’s definitely tough to find the production support space for seven different shows. Being on a studio lot allows us to contract or expand to meet these changing needs.”

Conte also believes that it’s easier to book guests for these shows on the left coast. “There are more guests in Los Angeles than in New York, so we have to fly less people in.”

Caryn Mandabach has similar thoughts. “Overall, producing these shows in L.A. can be cheaper than New York,” she adds. “The below-the-line costs are higher in New York City. Plus, the look of Los Angeles is pretty distinct. With some of our shows being taped in New York, Oprah Winfrey’s portions being done in Chicago, and some of our talkshows and gameshows being produced in Hollywood, you can say our cable station is going to have a tri-coastal feel.”

Among the Oxygen shows that are based in Los Angeles is “Exhale,” Candice Bergen’s sophisticated conversation hour (10 p.m.); “Inhale,” an early morning health and yoga program; “Girl in the Picture,” a film showcase, featuring interviews with Hollywood actresses, and “Pajama Party,” the cabler’s raucous Saturday night show.

“We’re going to be very big on comedy,” says Mandabach. “We believe that women like to laugh and to make everyone else laugh, so if you take a look at our lineup, you’ll see that many of our shows focus on the humor factor.”

One person who is an expert on that humor factor is Katie Puckrik, the host and exec producer of “Pajama Party.” Puckrik, who was the life force behind a similar show in the U.K., says she certainly plans to take full advantage of the Los Angeles location, as well as exploring all possible avenues of latenight frivolity.

“We’ve got great karma here because we’re taping our show on the very same stage they used for ‘I Dream of Jeannie’,” says the energetic Puckrik. “After living in London’s crummy rainy weather for 16 years, I’m definitely going to celebrate the sunny side of Los Angeles.”

According to the U.S.-born Puckrik, a singer-dancer turned journalist-host who got her big break in the U.K., the show will be a paean to female friskiness, where celebrity guests and regular types with interesting stories let their hair down and explore the latest cultural trends. “We’ll be talking to a female bullfighter in one segment and then we’ll follow it with a report on vaginal rejuvenation,” says Puckrik.

A huge advantage of taping in the entertainment capital of the world, notes Puckrik, is the fact that interesting people from all over the world tend to gravitate to Los Angeles. “We don’t have an enormous budget, so we can’t import our guests, but we’ll be digging underneath the glossy Los Angeles veneer to come up with quirky stories and characters.

“We live in a cosmopolitan city, and we’re not just going to focus on women who have a certain body weight and whose eyebrows are all shaped the same way. There’s an intensity in the air here and a strange nostalgia for the future and we hope that flavor will come across in our shows.”