It was a haggard bunch that staggered in to cover the Q&A session about the new "women's" network, Oxygen, on the last day of the winter press tour.

Two weeks of nonstop TV talk--on the Keri Russell short-hair/long-hair controversy, on CBS's public-service effort to eradicate all NBC signage from the Manhattan landscape, and on the White House's mucking up of its anti-drug campaign--had sapped The Reporters Who Cover Television of the pep for which they'd become known.

Now, this mostly male group has, on a good day, only a tepid interest in covering "women's" television. Of course, it's preferable to covering children's television, but best to avoid both, given the opportunity.

But on Friday they couldn't give Oxygen the slip; one of its partners is Oprah Winfrey, and Winfrey is the second-biggest star in the TV firmament these days, behind only "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" host Regis Philbin.

Oxygen, the for-girls/by-girls network, had also promised to serve up Candice Bergen, who's hosting a weekday talk show for the new network.

So the reporters came. But once the doors were closed, the awful truth hit them: no Oprah, no Candice.

And that is when The Reporters Who Cover Television hit the wall.

"Oprah! Oprah! Oprah!" they chanted, while the remaining Girls of Oxygen sat nervously onstage. The network's one male partner, producer Tom Werner, must have sensed danger and had wisely stayed away.

His producing partner, Marcy Carsey, tried to calm the crowd by explaining that Winfrey couldn't be there because she's a "working girl."

"Yeah--what are we doing?" shot back one of the reporters.

"Yeah, you're working, too, but she has a studio and a thing in Chicago," Carsey offered weakly.

But the crowd was not going to be tricked by that old "she couldn't be here" line. The reporters had been talking to stars at the press tour via satellite for years and had learned a thing or two about the miracle of modern technology.

Carsey resorted to her last line of defense: "You're hurting my feelings," she said, hurling the feminist movement back about two decades.

Yes, this gal network was getting off to a great start.

After a couple of minutes, when the mob had settled down, the Girls of Oxygen started to describe their programming strategy.

"What you'll get is the spirit of Oxygen because we are a bunch of rowdy girls, truly," gushed another of the network's founders, Caryn Mandabach.


Here's what we learned:

1. Oxygen suits, being women, "feel" their way through programming decisions, rather than "think" them.

2. In the morning, when we wake up, women "want to stretch." So, on weekday mornings, Oxygen will telecast yoga classes.

3. On weekends, when we wake up, "we want to shop." So, on the weekend, Oxygen will focus on shopping techniques under the title "SheCommerce."

4. And, perhaps best of all, at 8 p.m. every Sunday, Oxygen will bring you the "see Oprah learn how to use a computer" show. It seems that Winfrey doesn't know diddly about computers, and she thinks women will find it fascinating to watch her take lessons every week.

The Girls of Oxygen believe that Oprah will do for the PC what her literary recommendations have done for book sales.

But viewers of her daytime show didn't have to watch her learn to read, so the comparison was lost on this TV columnist. Then again, I wasn't at my best that day (hadn't done my morning stretching).

Mandabach also tried to convince the Boys of the Press Tour that the network was for them, too. It's called Oxygen, not Estrogen, and everybody needs Oxygen, she noted perkily.

But the Boys of the Press Tour were by then suffering from high levels of cutesy poisoning and were trying their best to block out all this Oxygen network "don't forget to breathe" prattle. They were instead trying very hard to think about the upcoming CNN session, where they were sure to see video clips of men fighting men, which would make them feel much, much better about covering television.

Sure enough, CNN served up clips not only of a couple of bombings but of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger to boot. Still, TRWCT didn't feel 100 percent better until CNN brought out Larry King. After all that talk about Oxygen and estrogen, what these guys really needed was some talk about Howard Stern--the anti-Oxygen.

And who better to have that chat with than Larry King. Stern picks on King all the time--King hates Stern! All right!

"Howard Stern is a gimmick," King said when asked about the shock jock.

"Howard Stern lives a secluded life. . . . He lives somewhere in Jersey. His knowledge of the world is certainly limited. I've had him on; he's funny at times--he's no Imus," King added.

The crowd oohed appreciatively. King saw that he was on a roll; he gave 'em more: "The Imus show is a much more intelligent show than Stern's. Imus is Stern for high school graduates. You wouldn't have a serious discussion with Howard Stern about something important happening on the planet."

And then he was finished, and reporters got up and left the room so they could call their editors with breaking news in the Larry King vs. Howard Stern war.

TRWCT were back.

Those reporters who stuck around for the rest of the CNN session had merger mania on their minds.

They wanted to know how CNN/U.S. President Rick Kaplan could believe that his network will objectively cover AOL's recent purchase of Time Warner, of which CNN is a part.

"We're journalists, and the idea that somehow journalists get co-opted or pressured in that way, it just hasn't worked out that way," said Kaplan.

"When I see that story come down, I'm fascinated by it," he added. "There are no controls or anything else that govern us to do something or not do something."

This led to a discussion on the spate of recent deals between newspapers and TV networks' news operations to cooperate on coverage of news events--ABC's new deal with the New York Times and The Washington Post's pact with MSNBC were mentioned. "Is there such a thing as a conflict of interest anymore--does it even exist?" one reporter asked Kaplan.

Which quickly turned into debate about The Post's media reporter, Howard Kurtz, and whether Kaplan thought it was a conflict of interest that Kurtz, who reports on CNN for the paper, also hosts CNN's program "Reliable Sources."

"I don't think there's a person at CNN that believes that Howard Kurtz has ever cut CNN a favor in any way, shape or form, and we wouldn't expect him to," Kaplan said.

But what about the "appearance of conflict"? asked one reporter.

"Well, actually, it's not my problem," Kaplan said. "Howard Kurtz does a wonderful job for us on 'Reliable Sources,' and the problem becomes Howard's and The Washington Post's as to whether they think that this compromises, in some way, Howard. I don't think that it does. Your point, however, is extremely well taken; you have to be careful about this, and the appearance of a conflict is very important."

Contacted yesterday, Kurtz defended his position at CNN.

"I've criticized CNN on the air and in The Washington Post, including Kaplan, especially over the botched Vietnam nerve gas story. And I'll continue to be tough on the network. I'm one of few journalists in the country who has aggressively questioned whether the AOL takeover could damage CNN.

"I always disclose the connection, so readers can make up their own mind," he added.

And what about the appearance of conflict of interest?

"My CNN connection is hardly a secret," Kurtz said. "And I deal with any perception problems by being as tough on CNN as I am on The Washington Post, which, I admit, has me on the payroll."