Oxygen woos women, online and off

The Oprah-backed online network will launch a cable channel next week

The latest high-profile marriage of the Internet and television takes to the airwaves next week, but this effort is aimed directly at women.

Oxygen Media, a new network aimed at women, hopes to reach them on television and on the Internet.

The cable network portion of the company will launch Wednesday; the online component, Oxygen.com, has been making its presence known online for a while. With the debut of on-air programming, officials say the new network will be able to take full advantage of its dual-channel business plan.

The network has high-profile backers. It was founded by former Nickelodeon chief Geraldine Laybourne, who signed on Oprah Winfrey and television producers Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach as partners. It has also received funding from Paul Allen, America Online and LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault.

Oxygen officials say they will go beyond simply listing schedules and show information online, although full-convergence features await new interactive television technology.

For instance, two live shows on the network -- "Pure Oxygen," a morning news and information show, and "Trackers," a talk show aimed at teens -- will use the Web site to help producers choose topics.

"'Pure Oxygen' will feature every day a segment from each Web site. They have meetings every morning to see what people are talking about and build that into programming," said Jeanine Smartt, spokeswoman for the company. Topics discussed on the shows won't be "just what's on The New York Times this morning, but what are the issues that women are talking about."

Smartt said the decision to use both media was made early in the formation of the network.

"The point was really to get women on the ground floor of a new and emerging technology," she said. "Oxygen wants to use the two mediums for what they're best for. The Internet is really good for providing information and individuality, while TV is great for entertainment and creating personalities."

Combining the channels should help the company sell itself to women, analysts said.

Oxygen's major online competitors, iVillage.com and Women.com, both have offline media partners -- iVillage with NBC and Women.com with Hearst.

"It's still more difficult to attract more women than men, because women tend to be more pessimistic (about technology)" said Ekaterina Walsh, an analyst at Forrester Research. "The message that needs to be stressed is ease of use and some type of utility. What better way to do that then to give them different content from the same brand on different channels?"

There are signs that the market is beginning to realise that, while women don't currently dominate the online landscape, things could change.

iVillage and Women.com recently got thumbs-up from Wall Street analysts, and both firms recently beat estimates for their fourth quarters.

Walsh said advertisers should also respond well to Oxygen's combined network. More and more, companies are looking to distribute their message across multiple channels, she said, and being able to offer that could help the company sell advertising.

"Women are a prime audience," she said. "They make most of the purchasing decisions in a household, and they're getting heavily online and becoming active shoppers."

Forrester estimates that 34 percent of all women in the United States are online, and it predicts that figure will hit 49 percent by 2003.

Oxygen is hoping to push that number higher with its linked programming and also with a special feature starring Winfrey.

The new show, "Oprah Goes Online," is designed to be an Internet tutorial for women.

"Part of our whole (plan) is for women who haven't tackled the Web yet. It's for women who don't know how to do it and want to find a safe place to find it," Smartt said.

Winfrey has certainly shown that she is able to influence women. The publishing world was almost turned upside down when she launched a book club through her television program, creating instant best sellers.

"Certainly we think that if she could do for the Internet one-tenth of what she did for books, it would be tremendous," Smartt said.

While the company's main Web site and affiliated sites such as Momsonline.com are open to everyone, Oxygen the TV network may have a bit of a challenge reaching viewers. The network will be available to about 10 million households at launch but will not be broadcast in major media cities New York and Los Angeles.

"Clearly that's a major drawback with regard to distribution," said Anya Sacharow, analyst at Jupiter Communications in New York. But Sacharow said she thinks the company may have an easier time competing online.

"I think all these sites are offering similar areas of content but are taking different approaches to packaging the content. Oxygen is more sort of pop culture in a way," she said. "They're paying greater attention to graphics and design. They have more of a media company mindset going in."

Oxygen is not alone in combining Web and television operations. The proposed merger of AOL and Time Warner would create a multimedia powerhouse. Ziff-Davis, publisher of ZDNet News, created the ZDTV network before recently selling the television operation to Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures.

Meanwhile, Yahoo! appears to be gearing up to produce a number of television-like Webcasts in the near future -- at least judging by several help-wanted advertisements on the site recently looking for on-air talent and production people.

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