Oxygen Gets A Makeover

Subliminal messages, eyeball, eye, brain, advertising, research study CBS

A woman walks down a California street, seemingly oblivious that her thong underwear is visible above her low-slung, hip-hugging pants. Hidden cameras catch the swiveled necks of passing men.

It's a scene from "Girls Behaving Badly" - a reality series surprising only in where it's being shown.

"Girls Behaving Badly" is a weekend staple on Oxygen, the fledgling cable channel with big dreams when it started in 2000 now trying whatever it can to make channel surfers slow down or stop.

Once envisioned as the home for smart working women - as opposed to Lifetime, its more successful rival - Oxygen now shows women yanking men's pants down to answer the "boxers or briefs" question, a woman straddling a stranger to test a new chair and Cheryl Tiegs' bondage equipment.

At its beginning, founding executive Geraldine Laybourne said Oxygen would be is focused on "releasing the energy of women to do great things. It represents a very strong point of view about our audience. We respect them and look up to them."

Nearly three years later, Oxygen is still looking for that audience.

It averaged 116,000 viewers in primetime during November, according to Nielsen Media Research. Lifetime, the leading network for women, had just under 1.9 million viewers at the same time.

"Oxygen, like any new network, is trying to find out how to define itself," said Tim Brooks, Lifetime's research director. "Its first pass didn't work out too well. But they will try different things. That's their battle, not ours."

The good news for Oxygen is, those numbers represent an improvement. And "Girls Behaving Badly" has something to do with it. The series airs 8 p.m. EST Sundays and, like most successful cable shows, is rerun multiple times.

There's nothing about "Girls Behaving Badly" that conflicts with the network's mission, said Debby Bece, Oxygen's programming chief.

"I just think women want to have fun," she said. "They like being frivolous and fun. It's not trying to make anyone better, it's just trying to make you laugh."

Comedy, particularly programs geared toward a young person's sense of humor, is an underserved niche at networks geared to women, she said. Lifetime is primarily known for cheesy movies that often depict women as victims.

Zoo Productions, the company behind "Girls Behaving Badly," cut its teeth filming scantily clad college students on spring break for MTV.

Producers hired four women, including an alumna of MTV's "Real World," for the new candid camera show. It's fast-paced, much like MTV, dispensing with elaborate setups for the jokes.

Much of the humor is bawdy. The women found many men eager to "drop trou" to show their underwear. One setup involved an actress, supposedly shopping for a new chair, who asked strangers for help so she could see what it would be like sitting on it with her boyfriend.

She sat on the lap of one wide-eyed volunteer and dangled her breasts inches from his face.

Another segment featured a stripper hired to entertain at a bachelor party who showed up for work with her 9-year-old son, who kept interrupting mom's act.

"GBB" also uses an occasional celebrity. Poking fun at the Winona Ryder case, Joan Rivers shoplifts in a Hollywood store in full view of unsuspecting strangers, who are tested to "come clean" when a clerk inquires about the missing items.

Tiegs, the supermodel with a wholesome reputation, is shown asking contractors for help building a new room at her house. It quickly becomes clear it's a storeroom for whips, chains and handcuffs.

"We like to have one thing on every show where you say, `Oh, my God. I can't believe they really did that,"' said Barry Poznick, the executive producer.

Poznick didn't know what to expect when he pitched the idea to Oxygen.

"We were pleasantly surprised," he said. "Everything we had read about Oxygen, we knew they wanted to be different than traditional women's programming. We knew they wanted to be smarter and chic-er than the others. But we didn't know they wanted to go into the comedy business."

Oxygen is so pleased with the show that it has ordered two more series pilots from Zoo Productions, both reality-comedy hybrids. Poznick is auditioning actresses to add to the "Girls Behaving Badly" cast.

Bece, 47, said that when she was growing up, the idea of women being laughed at was the height of embarrassment. She likes "Girls Behaving Badly" because the women are in control of the comedy.

She doesn't worry about mixed messages from Oxygen's smarter shows.

"I think it's targeted to a very young demographic, which has grown up in a very different world," she said. "TV is doing this sort of thing all the time and it's a reflection of the market."


By David Bauder
  • Francie Grace

Comments