Oxygen’s Focus-Group Feminism

[Oxygen says no to Randy Cohen.]

Clay is an editor at Slate who moves copy along all day long, so you’d think that when Culturebox invited him to get up from his desk and watch tapes with her, he’d have welcomed the break. He did, too–for three minutes, whereupon he began to fidget uncontrollably. By minute four he was out the door.

Inigo is Slate’s resident intellectual, a bespectacled Brit brimming over with gossip who never rejects an opportunity to socialize. When Culturebox asked him to watch, he jumped at the chance–and lasted seven minutes.

Mr. Culturebox always fidgets when watching tapes, so Culturebox had to beg to get him to watch at all. Nonetheless he made it through 10 minutes, after which he turned to Culturebox with a pleading look. Yes, said Culturebox, you are excused.

What made these men flee the room? They were watching preview tapes for Oxygen Media, the women’s cable channel that launched last Wednesday. (Tapes, and not the channel itself, since so far it reaches only 10 million homes, none of which are in New York City, where Culturebox works.) This is the channel whose co-founder, Caryn Mandebach, recently declared: “Men watch TV with one hand down their pants and the other on the [TV remote] control. Women watch TV with a Krispy Kreme donut in one hand and a martini in the other–and they don’t need a remote control.”

In case you don’t recognize the trick, this is what girls understand as signaling–letting men know it’s time to clear out. A more literal mind might have deduced that Oxygen is against masturbation and channel surfing and in favor of alcoholism, complacency, and fat. But Culturebox, who’s good at this girl-talk stuff (or so she likes to think), interprets Mandebach as telling the TV industry that women are better consumers than men, so advertisers and cable programmers better sign Oxygen right up.

But look at how zero-sum the logic is: If you dis them (the men, that is), they will come (the women, of course). This is, at the very least, an unusually strong interpretation of the concepts behind niche marketing. Can it work? Oxygen’s programmers seem to think so. A caveat: Culturebox is basing this judgment on nothing more than tapes of two shows, both of which manifested the wobbliness common to new shows and have probably gotten a hundred times better just in the week the network has been on the air.

Nonetheless, consider this: A talk show called Exhale with Candice Bergen, the trick of which is to have the same guests on the show for the full hour (minus commercials), allowing the issues they raise be fully explored. Oxygen must believe the female attention span superior to men’s, because that 44 minutes sure  gets long. Or how about X Chromosome, a series of short animated skits on recognizable girl situations: A girl wants to move, but her cloying friend downstairs won’t let her. (In the name of female solidarity, she doesn’t.) A girl’s new party dress gives her the je ne sais quoi to deliver a stinging putdown to a man who done her wrong. (You go, girl!) A sourpuss has to buy a bathing suit, but feels too fat, and has a fit at the whole damn system. (We’ve all been there, admit it.)

It’s easy to see why Culturebox’s male colleagues and husband might have gotten itchy. It’s harder to see why Oxygen’s creators thought women wanted to watch shows with such a pandering yet somehow condescending tone. Culturebox has a theory: Focus groups. Geraldine Laybourne, head of Oxygen, is famous for doing more market research than anyone else in the business and conducted hundreds of focus groups before letting her programmers design her “content.” But if the history of entertainment in this country tells us anything, it’s that there’s a difference between what people say they want and what they’ll really pony up for. Who says women have a superior attention span? Women do. Who says women want more sensitive, more open, less plot-driven stories? Women do. But people will always aggrandize the traits of whatever group they’re being shoehorned into. Men may say they want porn and sports (Culturebox doesn’t know if they do–this is just speculation based on specifically “male” TV programming), but they’re still tuning in to The Sopranos in record numbers to witness such clichés of masculinity turned on their heads through good writing and acting. Even if Oxygen were what women thought they wanted, it would seem, to Culturebox, doomed to depress. There’s nothing more dispiriting than being presented with your deepest desires and discovering that they are defensive and narrow.