LOS ANGELES, Sept. 11 (UPI) -- I never thought that Oxygen, one of the gassiest ideas to hit the TV business, would improve, but it has. On the other hand, hot air rises. So maybe the women's cable channel, which wafted into view almost three years ago on big balloons of self-importance, had nowhere to go but up.
Oxygen debuted in February 2000 with great fanfare and two big problems. One was poor penetration: For almost two years, the cable channel was unavailable in New York and Los Angeles.
AOL TimeWarner finally began carrying Oxygen in New York last fall, and satellite subscribers can view the channel in L.A. Oxygen now reaches around 40 million homes, a big improvement from its numbers last year of just 13 million.
And while Oxygen may only have about half the viewers of Lifetime, its far bigger rival, founder Geraldine Laybourne points out that Oxygen's penetration is now comparable to small but established cable channels like VH1 or Bravo.
Oxygen's other problem was that the critics hated it, right from the beginning. And not just the snarky ones in New York and L.A., either, who didn't even watch it regularly.
"It thinks it's a shot of espresso when it's really a lukewarm cup of General Foods International Coffee," wrote Joanne Weintraub in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last year.
I still remember the antagonism at the first Oxygen press conference.
"Op-RAH! Op-RAH! Op-RAH," changed disgruntled reporters, well fed but unappeased by their delicious Oxygen-hosted lunch. Although founding partners Marcy Carsey, Caryn Mandabach and Geraldine Laybourne were there, the other founding partner, Oprah Winfrey, was not.
Oprah and her mighty star power are a vital Oxygen draw, in front of the camera as well as behind it. Next week the channel premieres "Oprah After the Show," a behind-the-scenes look at what happens each day after the syndicated "Oprah Winfrey Show" finishes taping. Laybourne refers to it as "Oprah Unplugged."
Anyway, back to that press conference.
"We have buses leaving for Chicago in the next half hour if anybody wants to visit with Oprah," said Carsey testily, stepping up to the podium. "She's a working girl. She has a studio, and -- a thing."
"Satellite!" someone yelled. The audience began a new chant: "Sat-el-LITE! Sat-el-LITE!"
"You're hurting my feelings," Carsey said, un-ironically. And there, in a nutshell, was the patronizing, rather disingenuous essence of the heavily hyped new network by women, about women, for women -- whose TV ads featured baby girls raising their fists to the tune of Helen Reddy singing, "I am strong, I am invincible."
Marcy Carsey, a TV producer whose hits include "Roseanne" and "3rd Rock From the Sun," is one of the most powerful people (never mind women) in TV, and a few disgruntled reporters were hurting her feelings?
Say what you like about, oh, Rupert Murdoch, at least his feelings don't get hurt that easily.
Oxygen was originally conceived as mirroring a woman's day, a niche programming idea that Laybourne pioneered with great success at Nickelodeon, with kiddie cartoons for pre-schoolers in the morning and more sophisticated fare for the home-from-school set in the afternoon.
Thus Oxygen began -- and still begins -- with the early morning yoga session "Inhale." The schedule used to wind down with "Exhale With Candice Bergen." But Bergen's talk show has been killed and reborn as the more participatory "Candice Checks It Out," in which the former "Murphy Brown" star goes in the field to talk to women space shuttle pilots and champion street lugers.
Bergen remains Oxygen's biggest star (besides Oprah) and has a charming, dry manner. "That Dan, you just can't predict him," she said, about former Vice President Dan Quayle's reportedly being a fan of "The Osbournes," though he was of course famously against "Murphy Brown" and her unconventional family dynamics.
"You know, I've never met Dan Quayle, and I was always fine with that," Bergen added. "And I don't know if he watched 'The Osbournes' because he certainly never watched 'Murphy Brown,' which didn't stop him from talking about it."
But though "Candice Checks It Out" is much better than "Exhale," it's actually among Oxygen's weaker new shows. For one thing, Candice doesn't exactly always really check it out. She LOOKED like she got into the street luger outfit and zoomed down the mountain road, but she really didn't, which seems like a bit of a cheat.
Far more appealing and energetic is "Freeride with Greta Gaines," a new show starring the remarkably game singer/songwriter and former snowboarding champion. Gaines travels across the continent trying her skill at cowgirl-style balloon-shooting competitions, ice fishing in Northern Canada and turkey calling in Tennessee -- all of which she actually does, with Betty Hutton-like verve and good cheer.
I also liked "Who Needs Hollywood?" hosted by the pixiesh Katie Puckrik, which replaced Oxygen's original Puckrik vehicle "Pajama Party." Again, the channel's found better success by kicking the host out of the studio and sending her on the road.
Puckrik travels to small-town American and puts on old-fashioned variety shows starring local residents. The one I saw found Puckrik in Darien, Ga., wrangling a bunch of gospel singers, some child ballerinas and (as emcee) the 300-pound manager of the local Piggly-Wiggly. It really was quite entertaining, and heartwarming, too.
Then there's "The Isaac Mizrahi Show," in which the fashion designer hosts a studio talk show but makes his guests do activities with him. Natalie Portman, for instance, helped Mizrahi wash and blow-dry his dog. Janeane Garofalo stopped by to talk about body issues -- but she had to play ping-pong while doing it. But she got to bring her own dogs along.
The dialogue isn't exactly scintillating. A sample:
Mizrahi: Now...you don't have body issues?
Garofalo: Oh, my God! My own dog just peed on me!
Mizrahi: Talk about making you a cult figure.
And yet the show is weirdly mesmerizing, in a Mr. Rogers-like way, when Mizrahi exits the studio for regular field trips to show how some of this favorite things (coach purses, donuts) are made.
Still, Oxygen's most popular programming at this point is its female-friendly reruns: "Cybill," "Kate & Allie," "Love, American Style," "Absolutely Fabulous" and (especially) "Xena, Warrior Princess." That's a little embarrassing for a cable enterprise that originally imagined itself as liberating oppressed women viewers from typical television fare.
But the Oxygen ladies are nothing if not spinmeisters and they've even managed to spin "Xena" et al, although not terribly gracefully.
"Xena is the perfect acquisition for us!" enthused Laybourne. "She's loaded with ovaries!"
A knack for the infelicitous phrase seems to be sort of an Oxygen trademark. Here's Mandabach, explaining Oxygen's original programming concept of mirroring a woman's day:
"You wake up in the morning, what do you want to do? You want to stretch. You want to work out. You want to listen to music...And then on the weekends, of course, what do we want to do? We wake up, we want to shop..."
It was an intriguing notion as far as programming goes, but also more than a little oppressively hand holding and support groupy. All those assumptions about what "we" as women ought to be doing each day gave me a creepy feeling that Big Sister is Watching.
I don't want to stretch or listen to music when I wake up in the morning. I want to have three cups of coffee and read the paper. No, I really don't want to think about shopping when I wake up on the weekend. What I want to do is go back to bed.
Having been grand media pooh-bahs for so many years, perhaps the problem was that the Oxygen founders were naturally fairly clueless about what non-working women might be doing at home during the weekday.
"In the afternoons, I don't know," Mandabach said vaguely, continuing with her idea of a woman's typical day. "We're at home working. We're changing a diaper. We're packing a lunch." We're packing a lunch in the afternoon? I don't think so.
Part of Oxygen's problem from the beginning was an unfortunate philosophy that logical glitches like these don't matter, because, well, we're women.
"We don't feel that we're experts in anything," Mandabach said, about Oxygen's programming. "We are women, and we feel our way through it rather than think our way through it."
Still, as I said, things are looking up at Oxygen.
"Everyone had to take stock and see how women reacted to the programming," said Bergen. "People wanted more relaxing, more entertainment-based than what they were getting their first year of Oxygen. Programming was redesigned around that. So I'm optimistic."