NEW YORK – It has Oprah Winfrey's dough, Xena's muscle and Murphy Brown's wit behind it, but the Oxygen network isn't getting enough air.
Ratings for the highly-touted women's television network are in — and the girls are not all right.
During March, the first month that Nielsen Media Research measured Oxygen's ratings, an average of 63,000 people watched the network during prime-time. That compares to the 2.4 million people watching Lifetime, its chief competitor, during the same period.
"It's not good," said Annabel Vered, an associate editor at TV Guide. "In the business, those kinds of numbers are called hash marks."
It wasn't supposed to be like this for the ambitious women's network.
When it launched several years ago, Oxygen got off to a $300 million start with some famous backers. In addition to Oprah, AOL kicked in, as did Microsoft. However, that muscle hasn't helped bring in an audience — even with a talk show hosted by Candice Bergen.
"The programming was different than Lifetime, but not focused," Vered said. "And now there is another new channel, WE. And even the Soap Opera Network delivers better demographics in fewer homes."
Advertisers want an affluent female audience, and Oxygen says it can deliver if given a bit more time.
"We grew from 14 million to 40 million [homes] in less than a year," Oxygen spokeswoman Laura Nelson told the Associated Press. "There's just no way that ratings can follow that kind of explosive growth."
There's often a lag between when networks show up on cable and when viewers get used to watching it, she said.
For now, analysts and industry insiders think Oxygen can only go up.
"For one thing, this would be Oprah's first big failure," Vered said. "That just won't happen. They're in 40 million homes, and that kind of distribution is just too valuable."
In the meantime, Oxygen is still breathing. Whether or not the patient is up and running any time soon may depend on the patience of its management.