S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 13 March 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
Oxygen Tent

 

[]

It's a chick's world, if only

she'll stand up for it. This is

the message that two very

different sources — Oxygen

Media, the would-be queen of

media synergy, and its many

critics — are bearing to

online surfers and cable

watchers. In case television

viewers didn't get the message

with Oxygen.com's Super Bowl

commercial, wherein a newborn

girl tosses her pink toque and

throws a second-wave power

salute, they were able to catch

a rebroadcast of the message

every day until 2 February, when

the Oxygen cable channel

officially launched — and we

all discovered what's being

broadcast on the channel and

posted on the synergistic

Oxygen.com Web site is enough to

lull even the most militant

infant back to sleep.

 

Sheer boredom hasn't prevented

media critics from blasting

Oxygen for its airy content. The

skeletal Web site and bland

programming have been blamed for

promoting everything from

bubble-headed consumerism to

passive acceptance of sexist

double-standards; clearly, women

who write about media feel let

down by Oxygen creator Gerry

Laybourne. How could one of

Fortune's 50 Most Powerful Women

in Business have sold out the

sisters by launching an iVillage

knockoff?

 

Easy: You don't get to be one of

the 50 most powerful women by

girl power alone. Gerry

Laybourne didn't get a year's

worth of favorable pre-launch

coverage by trumpeting her

ability to rock existing media

paradigms in the name of social

progress. She got cover stories

by promising to build media

convergence and deliver up

millions of unique viewers who

would use the television channel

and associated Web sites as

gateways to online spending.

Oxygen has never tried to hide

its plans to plumb user

demographics in the effort to

build a better shopping

experience, and it's never shied

from disclosing its primary

motivation for creating "sticky"

programming: to lure its viewers

into shopping, thus giving

advertisers the incentive to

sponsor Oxygen's expansion.

Damning Oxygen for its insipid

content is a little like

criticizing Batman for not

teaching us enough about bats.

 

[]

But in another way, the fly in

the company's sticky formula

just happens to be the

programming. Lifetime sucks in

its viewers with turgid and

improbable melodrama. Broadcast

networks rely on women with

fabulous hair and fantasy

professional lives to fill a

feminine jones for willing and

derisive suspension of

disbelief. Oxygen lacks any

compelling reason to watch; the

shows are so carefully

calibrated to appeal to

demographic composites that they

fail to engage any of the people

who actually make up the group.

The Web site is even more

poignant: Oxygen's plans for

synergy are painfully evident,

and so is the lack of means with

which to accomplish those goals.

If any feminist cultural critics

want to wring their hands over

Oxygen's media offerings, they

should be doing so not because

it's so banal, but because it

presages a spectacular failure

for a high-profile female's

business venture.

 

This is where the sword of

gender identity swings both

ways. Gerry Laybourne sold

herself as the logical choice to

helm a company targeted toward

women, then sold the idea of a

digital sisterhood to a handful

of partners. Delivering a

guaranteed audience was part of

a business plan to fulfill a

much-ballyhooed, spectacularly

underwhelming pipe dream:

marrying broadcast ubiquity and

online commerce. But as Dwight

Eisenhower, who knew a thing or

two about winning in a

multiplatform environment, once

observed, "Plans are nothing;

planning is everything." Nearly

every player, from Microsoft to

Bell Atlantic, has invested

millions in Laybourne's dream

— only to discover the big

payoff goes not to the

bandwidth-builders, but to those

con artists who manage to hawk

nebulous "synergy" strategies to

deep-pocketed investors. Rather

than admitting that the synergy

plan stumbles on consumer

behavior — people do

different things online than

they do while watching

television — and adjusting

their business strategy to

provide services that people

will actually use, media

convergence crusaders are

casting about for an audience

that will do what they want.

 

[]

In theory, if you can launch a

business with a built-in

audience, you have a license to

print money. In practice,

however, reeling in an entire

gender has proven tricky. In its

pursuit of the feminine eyeball,

iVillage has burned at least $65

million so far and shows no

indication of dropping the

matches and picking up the money

press any time soon. Also-ran

women.com huddles under the

protective umbrella of Hearst

Publishing, a company that's had

to rethink its online strategy

for targeting an increasingly

evasive feminine audience. Given

its considerable life support

system, Oxygen can be expected

to join this crew of businesses

lingering indefinitely in the

Web's day room. We may even be

witnessing the birth of a new

kind of company: the successful

failure.

 

The failure of the assorted Web

sites to galvanize gender

awareness — and the apparent

side effect of dropping millions

of dollars on consumer goods

— isn't directly traceable

to the démodé

sensibilities shaping the

programming, much as some would

like to think. Trying to

manufacture someone else's idea

of cool is an exercise in

futility. Banking an entire

business plan on your unproven

ability to sell an entire gender

on the proposition that you know

what's relevant to their lives

goes beyond futile.

 

[]

Another futile exercise would be

pointing out that nobody has

bothered to examine the

underlying premise of Oxygen's

business plan. Sisterhood is a

marvelous thing when it's being

used to sell a phantom company:

The vision of millions of women

clicking on Buy Now links is

compelling enough to overlay the

reality of Oxygen's roots. But

when the reality turns out to be

infomercials-gone-wrong, the

critics begin complaining that

Oxygen's rah-rah consumerism is

a clever ploy to divert women

from examining deeper gender

issues. The critics are right:

When you fixate on something

shallow (like a mediocre cable

channel's unwatchable

programming) you tend to ignore

deeper issues (like the unproven

business models Oxygen employed

simply to get into business).

Critical carping aside,

Oxygen.com is proof that it is,

indeed, a chick's world —

provided you're the chick going

into business and not her

intended customer.

 
courtesy of theVixel Pixen
 
picturesTerry Colon



Vixel Pixen