Oxygen Officially Rebranding as Crime-Focused Network

Frances Berwick - H 2015
Courtesy of NBC

A month after news leaked that Oxygen was mulling a crime-focused rebranding, the NBCUniversal-owned cable network has made the move official.

Set to change its focus this summer, the new iteration of Oxygen will be rebranded as a crime destination network geared toward women. No staffing changes or layoffs are expected to come with the shift, according to NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Lifestyle Networks president Frances Berwick.

As part of the planned rebranding, the network has picked up three new shows — including a revival of Law & Order mastermind Dick Wolf's Cold Justice, which was quietly dropped at TNT. Despite earlier rumors, Wolf has no equity stake in the network; instead, he is involved simply as a content supplier and is said to have other projects in development already.  

The move comes after Oxygen found ratings growth with its four-night-a-week "Crime Time" weekend block, which is up 22 percent among women 25-54 and 42 percent among total viewers thanks to veteran Snapped and similar fare. Though a larger overhaul is still months away, the network will debut abduction series Three Days to Live on March 5. Cold Justice and The Jury Speaks, which re-examines controversial cases told through the eyes of the original jury, will join the schedule in the third quarter.

As part of the shift, Berwick tells The Hollywood Reporter that she's interested in acquiring off-network syndication rights to other procedurals to join repeats of NCIS and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation on the network. That could include Wolf's slate of NBC Chicago procedurals, which have not been taken out into the syndicated marketplace and do not yet have a home on streaming services like Netflix.

Oxygen's shift also arrives as the true-crime genre has exploded over the past few years following the success of HBO's The Jinx, Netflix's Making a Murderer and FX's People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. The ratings, awards and water cooler success of those entries has since spurred a long roster of similarly themed development across the scripted and unscripted landscape.

Below, Berwick talks to THR about what to expect from Oxygen's rebranding.

Why pull the trigger on this now for the summer?

We've had a long history of crime on Oxygen with 20-plus seasons and 14-plus years of Snapped on the network. We've been adding shows outside of the Snapped franchise and have seen those shows do well, too. It was really just seeing that this young, female viewership we have was really leaning into and getting fanatical about the crime shows. Looking across the landscape and how much interest there is, even way beyond conventional television and video content, it really is exploding online with people following crimes and being involved on social platforms in trying to solve crimes, in podcasts, everywhere. It really felt like there was something we could tap into here and do something different than anyone else in the genre. 

Will the Oxygen name and branding remain? 

We're looking at keeping the name; we think the name works. In terms of the look and feel of the network, we are looking to change that a bit. We will be rolling out a different look when we launch the rebrand in the summer.

What's your new pitch to the creative community for the kind of programming the new Oxygen is looking for?

High-quality crime shows that either fall into the self-contained procedural unscripted bucket or major buzzy tentpoles, interesting stories, different ways of storytelling and driving suspense that allows our female viewers to become armchair detectives so that they are trying to solve the mystery or the crime as it's being revealed to them. Something we have seen that our audience loves is the play-along and that's important, but also that these [shows] are really grounded in reality. There is a way of telling these stories in many different ways and going in through different angles and points of view.

If you could pluck one show from elsewhere for the new Oxygen, which would it be? 

The television version of [podcast] Serial. We launched a new podcast series last week, Martinis and Murder, which is doing well. This plays into the obsession people have with trying to figure out crime and listening to crime and getting into it. That could be a nice incubation place for shows for the linear network.

What did you learn about Oxygen's audience that surprised you in your research?

That there's a younger audience for these types of shows than you see on some of the other networks and there is no end to interesting stories and different ways to tell the stories. And that the audience is very passionate about this type of show.

What is Dick Wolf's role in the new Oxygen? Does he have an equity stake?

No, we're doing Cold Justice with him and rebooting the successful franchise that we're taking over and creating new episodes for it. He's an important supplier to our overall company and we also have other shows in development with him. That's the extent of it.

Wolf's multiple Chicago shows do not have a syndication deal. What's the likelihood that they wind up on Oxygen?

This is primarily an unscripted originals network. We are certainly looking at acquired series. But at this stage, the two that we have are NCIS and CSI.

Wolf also has NBC scripted anthology Law & Order: True Crime coming up. Have you thought about doing any sort of unscripted companion show to that?

That's an interesting idea! We're paying close attention to what NBC is producing in this genre and we'll certainly look to them if there are possibilities to repurpose [programming], but we don't have anything locked in on that side at this point.

What about other off-network fare, like CBS' Scorpion? How are you going to fill all these hours?

Most of the hours will be filled with vast inventory we have for Snapped. Because the show has been on the network for 14 years, we have a lot of this content and we have branched out from the franchise and had things like Killer Couples, She Made Me Do It, Homicide for the Holidays, Collision Course. These are just a few of the shows we've had on the network in the past year. We have a considerable inventory of both new and existing unscripted originals that we can pull from. We will certainly look to round off those offerings with off-network series.

And what about outside of primetime?

We've been programming this now as a four-day per week block for months and we've had a rotation of various originals and they've been holding up. There's a certain amount of stacking in there, which can work very well. What we're finding is that people habitually come and watch at least three hours together so they get sucked into these marathons. We'll be rolling out the new shows in primetime but the rest of the schedule will have a flow to it. It's not going to be all Snapped because we have a lot of other shows, too. Certainly there will be stacks and marathons and it will be strategically scheduled. There will be a message to the scheduling in terms of how do we get people to stay for the longest period of time.

As you look to round out the programming, how much more new fare will you be adding and how does that balance between off-network pickups and new unscripted?

We're very excited by the development slate we have. We're announcing three new shows and there will be more new shows over the coming weeks. There's an incredible creativity going on in this genre right now and we anticipate having both the self-contained or the procedural unscripted as well as some major tentpole events and some buzzworthy unscripted miniseries.

How many new shows are you looking to integrate as you expand from what was a four-night crime block to seven days? 

I don't have a number right now. We'll be adding to it often. We're starting with these three, but we also have many of the returning franchises that have already been successful, too.

What happens to the current Oxygen slate of originals? Will any others survive the rebranding? 

We've got some of the traditional Oxygen millennial programming still to air in the first and second quarters and we'll certainly be airing them. We have a new season of Bad Girls Club coming out and we have a great new shows called Battle of the Ex Besties that will be leading out of Bad Girls Club. Those will air and when we rebrand in the summer, we'll go to crime seven days a week.

So what happens to those shows?

Bad Girls Club, at this stage, I don't see it on Oxygen linear. Beyond that, we haven't figured it out yet.

What does this decision say about Oxygen's previous focus?

All it says about Oxygen's previous focus — which was crime and shows like Bad Girls Club — is the two dovetail and work fine together but this is a focus on a particular genre that is incredibly appealing. It's interesting to see how this genre has grown and exploded over the past few years. I don't think it's an indictment of what we were doing before. We're just doubling down on a piece of what we were doing before because we think there's real opportunity to grow the network much faster. 

How does this strategy help safeguard Oxygen in a future a la carte world?

Partly, it's the popularity of the genre. The fact that the ratings have gone up so dramatically for this particular block on the network speaks to the fact that this is the tip of the iceberg. From the point of view of brand clarity, people get it and love this type of programming. All of those things that add up to the audience's ease of understanding the brand is super helpful right now.