On air

Screenshots from Oxygen.com in December 2000 (left, courtesy Archive.org) and today (right).
Screenshots from Oxygen.com in December 2000 (left, courtesy Archive.org) and today (right).

Note: Addendum added below.

For a side project (but ultimately also as background for the dissertation), I’ve just read the media scholar Lisa Parks’s very interesting 2004 essay “Flexible Microcasting: Gender, Generation, and Television-Internet Convergence.” In one part of the essay, Parks analyzes the early years of the Oxygen cable television network, which debuted in 2000 as part of an ambitious TV-internet hybrid. I’m not a regular Oxygen viewer, but it was striking to note the differences between networks’ initial programming and the fare it offers today. At its debut, Oxygen promised to “superserve the needs and interests of women,” and its schedule included a Candice Bergen talk show, a yoga program, a web-integrated talk show for girls, a showcase for gender-themed digital art, and a show where Oprah Winfrey and friend Gayle King learned to use the internet. Whatever the merits of such programming—Parks sees some feminist possibilities in them, while others were more critical—it’s a far cry from Oxygen’s top hits today: Hair Battle Spectacular, Dance Your A** Off, Jersey Couture, Bad Girls Club, and so forth. This lineup of reality and reality-competition series, while clearly aimed at a primarily female audience, would seem to lack any explicit service mission. And it would hardly be out of place on other cable outlets not identified as “women’s” networks: Bravo, VH1, and E!, for instance.

Of course, this is not a trend confined to Oxygen alone. History—long, and still, the bane of academic historians—has branched out from war documentaries and features Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers. On A&E, middle- and high-brow arts programming has been pushed aside by  Dog the Bounty Hunter, Growing Up Twisted and, as Pandora has been reminding me all day, Gene Simmons Family Jewels. At VH1, music coexists, sort of, with “Celebreality.”

Yet, while Oxygen and Lifetime have become less distinguishable from their cable counterparts, it’s interesting that other identity-based niche cable channels, like BET and Logo, seem to have retained a brand identity far more rooted in their original missions of programming distinctively about and for African American and gay and lesbian audiences, respectively. This divergence may be another manifestation of a question I’ve confronted repeatedly in conceptualizing my dissertation project. How do demands for better images of women in the movies and on television fit alongside similar calls for better images of groups, from African Americans to gays and lesbians, that have not only been historically marginalized within and outside the entertainment industry, but have also been distinct demographic minorities? I’ve tended to fudge this issue so far by talking about feminist, rather than women’s, campaigns for improved media representations. But while I do think this distinction is important, it’s certainly not by itself an adequate answer to the question.

I realize that this is all, being generous, semi-coherent. Please think of this as a brainstorming post.

Addendum, 7/21: After letting this marinate for a day, I think I have a somewhat better idea of the idea I’m trying to develop here. Because “women” is a far larger slice of the demographic pie than, for instance, “African American” or “gay and lesbian,” it’s inevitable that many channels on an increasingly fractured cable landscape will try to deliver that demographic to advertisers by scheduling at least some programming that features and appeals to female viewers. As a result, an explicit mission of service to women or an express assertion of some brand of feminism would offer ways to differentiate a “women’s” channel from a channel for general audiences that appeals to women. But both Lifetime and Oxygen seem to have rejected such differentiation. In contrast, although BET and Logo have sought to broaden their appeal (e.g. Logo’s Ru Paul’s Drag Race), and although other channels have sought to appeal to both black and gay audiences (e.g. Bravo, in the latter case), the focus of their programming remains more distinctive.

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