‘On the precipice of being a real business’: NBCU’s Oxygen wants to make money from podcasts

NBCUniversal’s Oxygen Media has been in the podcasting business for two years, but this is the year that the cable network hopes that business becomes a real source of revenue.

Since its debut in January 2017, episodes of Oxygen’s flagship podcast, “Martinis & Murder” — a weekly talk show focused on true crime stories — have been downloaded more than 8 million times, according to Lisa Hsia, evp of digital for Bravo, Oxygen and Universal Kids Media. However, with the exception of one-off series tied to its TV programming, “Martinis & Murder” remains Oxygen’s sole regular podcast show because the company is still waiting to see whether podcasting can generate meaningful revenue before it looks to add more shows and enter the podcast network business, Hsia said.

That’s not to say that Oxygen doesn’t make any money from podcasting; “Martinis & Murder” was profitable in 2018, according to the company. In addition to selling “Martinis & Murder” branded merchandise on its e-commerce site, Oxygen’s sales team includes the podcast in sponsorship packages that it pitches to advertisers, and Oxygen sells the podcast’s audio ad inventory through third-party ad networks. But historically “Martinis & Murder” has not had enough scale to really grab advertisers’ attention, said Hsia. Oxygen aims to change that this year by doing more to promote the podcast to attract more listeners and, by extension, advertisers.

“At this point, it’s turning the corner, and it’s on the precipice of being a real business,” Hsia said of Oxygen’s podcast advertising business.

Despite the advantage of having a TV network and digital properties to augment its podcast pitch to advertisers, Oxygen is not immune to the challenge facing many podcast publishers of getting on advertisers’ radar. At this point there are so many podcasts on the market that ad buyers struggle to pick out which ones warrant clients’ ad dollars. As a result, podcast companies are pressed to host upfront events and invest in other promotional tactics in order to break through.

Oxygen has stepped up its promotion of “Martinis & Murder.” On March 3 it debuted an account on chat fiction app Yarn to post text conversations between the show’s hosts, Bravo star Andy Cohen’s assistant Daryn Carp and Oxygen senior digital producer John Thrasher, as a way to appeal to the app’s user base of young women that overlaps with the podcast’s audience, said Hsia. “Martinis & Murder” was also one of the many podcasts to host a live show at this year’s SXSW, which it will do again at Death Becomes Us, a Comic-Con for true crime fans that will be held in New York City in late March. And sometime later this spring, the show will do a guest takeover of SiriusXM’s Stars channel that specializes in talk shows appealing to women.

While podcasting may not yet be a real business for Oxygen, it does contribute to Oxygen’s overall business. Oxygen entered the podcasting business in 2017 in connection with the network’s pivot toward true crime programming. Given that true crime has emerged as one of podcasting’s most popular genres following the success of “Serial,” the network saw podcasting as an inexpensive way to find people who would likely be interested in checking out that kind of content on its linear network. “Podcasting was obviously a growing field, and honestly podcasting isn’t that expensive to do,” said Hsia.

“Martinis & Murder” has helped Oxygen to cultivate an audience of younger women who are into true crime content. The podcast’s listener base is 89 percent female, and more than 80 percent of its listeners are under the age of 34, Hsia said. While Oxygen is not able to directly track how many of those podcast listeners have turned into viewers of its TV network, the company believes the podcast has helped to convert listeners into viewers based on how the podcast’s audience and the network’s TV audience have grown. “Definitely the growth has been parallel,” Hsia said.

This article has been updated to reflect that the SiriusXM guest takeover is scheduled for sometime this spring.

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