BY: DAVID BAUDER
NEW YORK – One advantage Oprah Winfrey might have in establishing an identity for her new television network is that many of her competitors are in the same situation, even if they’ve been around for a while.
Some of the biggest existing cable networks that are aimed at women — Lifetime, WE, Hallmark and Oxygen — are in some degree of transition as Winfrey’s OWN prepares for its New Year’s Day debut. The goal is to distinguish themselves so OWN won’t siphon off viewers.
“They have to ante up and come out fighting,” said Shari Anne Brill, longtime industry analyst and founder of “The Brill Beat” blog.
Competing network executives have been watching the shaky process of OWN taking shape, and expect that a mix of aspirational programming that Winfrey has been associated with on her own talk show won’t compete directly with what they’re doing. They also know, however, that Winfrey and backer Discovery Communications Inc. have the patience and money to try different things if at first they don’t succeed.
“It will have an effect on WE,” said John Miller, WE’s programming chief. “Pinpointing exactly what that is would be a perilous thing.”
Lifetime is the biggest competitor and, at this stage, the biggest mystery.
Less than a decade ago, it was the nation’s most popular cable network; now it’s not even in the top dozen. One problem for Lifetime is that most of its original movies — formulaic but popular with the primarily older audience — have been switched to a spinoff network devoted solely to movies. Hallmark faces a similar problem.
The latest in a line of executives charged with turning Lifetime around is Nancy Dubuc, who made History a success with breezy nonfiction hits such as “Ice Road Truckers” and “Pawn Stars.” Dubuc, who stayed with History while adding Lifetime to her responsibilities last spring, has kept quiet about her plans while evaluating options. She declined to speak to The Associated Press for this story.
One hint into what she’s looking at are proposed series ordered into development. One would star Sherry Stringfield of “ER” as a soon-to-be-divorced San Diego detective and her just-engaged partner, played by Jamie-Lynn Sigler. There are a couple of other police series, along with a drama about a woman asked by the FBI to spy on her husband, and a woman who is chief of staff at a university psychiatric department.
Lifetime has also ordered 20 episodes of a Heidi Klum series, “Seriously Funny Kids,” with a producer of “Kids Say the Darndest Things” behind it. One potential nonfiction series, “One Born Every Minute,” follows women in an Ohio maternity ward.
Brill suggested that Lifetime, which normally features its best original programming in the summer when the broadcast networks are slumbering, be more aggressive this winter to keep its audience away from OWN.
Lifetime’s audience is 76 percent women, according to the Nielsen Co. WE (77 percent women), Hallmark (75 percent) and Oxygen (73 percent) all have about the same audience composition.
The Hallmark Channel may offer a sobering case study for Winfrey. This fall it essentially turned much of its daytime schedule over to Martha Stewart, who moved her show to cable from local broadcasters, and is letting Stewart’s company produce other lifestyle-oriented programming.
The initial ratings were disappointing. Bill Abbott, president and chief executive of the Hallmark Channels, said network executives underestimated the degree to which viewers were used to turning to broadcasters for such fare. But ratings for Stewart’s block of shows has improved 50 percent since the launch. “We’re getting to the point where we’re feeling comfortable,” he said.
Hallmark reaches a generally older audience with family friendly material, and a big focus on holidays and celebrations. Christmas movies are very big this month, for example. He has more on which to focus than OWN, he said.
“The cable landscape is so big and diverse,” Abbott said. “I don’t think we can look at any one network having that big a role in terms of a positive or negative impact on what we do.”
Hallmark and Lifetime are powerful brands that are trying to arrest decline; Hallmark’s ratings this year are down 24 percent, Nielsen said. WE and Oxygen are both on the ascendancy, with bawdier images and younger audiences.
WE has been particularly aggressive since Miller was brought on less than a year ago. Its focus is on “the relationships that define a woman’s life,” he said.
“We want conflict, we want drama, we want big and loud characters,” he said. He’s focusing on nonfiction programming, often with a comedic tone. One show that premiered this fall, “Downsized,” was more tragic than comic. The show concerns a family dealing with tough economic times but has a contemporary spin.
One new show ready for January, “A Stand Up Mother,” is a series about comedian Tammy Pescatelli trying to balance family and career. A reality series about Joan Rivers and her daughter Melissa is also on deck.
“We’re a new network,” he said. “We’re very different from where we were a year ago.”
Oxygen represented Winfrey’s first foray into cable; she was an initial investor there but, to the network’s chagrin, didn’t have much to do with its programming. Oxygen was acquired three years ago by NBC Universal.
Its focus is narrow: women ages 18 to 34. “Live Out Loud” is the branding slogan. Its signature reality series, “Bad Girls Club,” is a version of MTV’s “The Real World” with outrageous and often violent women living together. The Oxygen website asks viewers to vote on what they want for the sixth season that debuts next month: “crazy partying and fun times” or “less partying and more hooking up.”
Tori Spelling and husband Dean McDermott are also big Oxygen stars, both in a series about their own lives and an upcoming new one where they offer wedding planning.
Oxygen is having its best year in the ratings, but Oxygen Media President Jason Klarman declined to talk about the network and what — if anything — the entrance of OWN will mean for his business.
“I don’t think anybody should be cowering,” WE’s Miller said. “We’re certainly not. But she’s definitely a woman to watch.”
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