Women cablers try new makeup

Nets sex up fare but femmes continue to flock elsewhere

What do women want? Oxygen and WE haven’t quite figured it out.

In 2000, Oxygen came roaring out of the gate preaching empowerment and boasting big-league backers Oprah, Geraldine Laybourne and Candace Bergen.

A year later, WE: Women’s Entertainment (nee Romance Classics in ’97) promised to replace tear-jerkers with serious femme fare like unscripted series and docs.

Fast forward to 2004.

Oxygen is emphasizing sex and humor; WE is putting the accent on “the passions of and relationships of women.”

The changes have been to no avail — femmes continue to flock elsewhere.

Faced with an ever-increasing number of channels and without big bucks to throw around — Oxygen is spending $110 million and WE $75 million this year on programming — the cablers are back to the drawing board.

Oxygen and WE ranked near the bottom of the top 50 ad-supported cablers in total viewers last year. Smaller SoapNet has outpaced them both, ranking 8th among women in primetime while Oxygen and WE tie for 32nd year-to-date.

Having started out deriding Lifetime’s melodramas, Oxygen has now decided to focus own original sitcoms. This comes in the wake of skeds which relied on how-to shows and WNBA games — niether of which worked.

Programming chief Debby Beece says going for comedy is a risk worth taking.

“We have Carsey-Werner-Mandabach, so that gives us a bit of an edge,” she says. “And although I do think (coming up with a hit laffer) is hard, it’s really valuable and women want it, so we’ll do it until we get it right.”

Oxygen has also sexed up its slate, having found some buzz with “Talk Sex with Sue Johanssen.” A sampling of upcoming original series: “Good Girls Don’t” (formerly “My Best Friend Is a Big Fat Slut”), “Naked Josh,” “Show Me Yours” and the home design show “Nice Package.”

Natalie Conway, VP/media director at ad agency Starcom, said the coy name game with titles is tough to play. She says agencies looking at buying time on cable giant TBS, for example, aren’t concerned as much about the racy content of “Sex and the City” as about the name of the series.

“It’s really difficult because if it’s not sexy then the show doesn’t get the buzz, they don’t get to be on ‘Access Hollywood,’ no one writes about it,” Conway says. “At the same time, it’s hard to get advertising support if it’s too sexy.”

The programming strategy at WE is less clear-cut, with just one modestly performing franchise “Single in…,” the reality version of “Sex and the City.”

New WE topper Kathleen Dore, given oversight of the cabler along with IFC and AMC in August, says her mandate will be to refine the niche audience which she describes as “the ‘Sex and the City’ girls if they lived in Kansas City.”

Net has already retooled the Courteney Cox-produced home makeover show “Mix It Up” and fashion skein “Full Frontal Fashion” to conform with feedback that says WE viewers want relatable shows with practical applications.

In addition, WE is piloting 10-15 more series concepts — the largest original programming slate that the cabler has ever undertaken. Possibilities range from family-oriented reality, to inspirational docs, to more makeover shows.

First to debut from the slate is a fall show called “Take My Kids,” which sends parents away for a weekend getaway while inexperienced friends and relatives stand in to baby-sit.

Dore said the show epitomizes where WE is going. “It’s a comedic half-hour that hits on a couple of key touchpoints for us: family, fun and the relationships between couples.”

Despite differing programming blueprints, execs at both Oxygen and WE agree that women remain an underserved audience, noting FX, Comedy Central, Spike and Sci Fi all vie for male eyeballs.

Execs at the cablers say winning women is a matter of better positioning and better targeting.

“There is plenty of room for women’s networks to develop different brands and flourish. Look at all the networks that target men,” Dore says. “The idea that we’re all fighting against each other — or fighting for our lives — is a disservice to what we’re trying to do.”

But as one top cable exec not associated with either femme cabler put it, the challenge for both Oxygen and WE is to more clearly define, and then differentiate, their brands: “(As they are right now), they don’t stand for anything. You think ‘women’ is a niche, but it’s not. It’s very broad.”

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