Pure Oxygen: Geraldine Laybourne '69

By Jessica Winum

Geraldine Bond Laybourne '69 knows the value and rewards of listening.In the 1980s and 1990s, she listened to kids who told her what they wanted on TV and then transformed a fledgling cable network with mediocre programming into an $8 billion media empire with a reputation for innovative shows for kids. It's called Nickelodeon.

These days, Laybourne is listening to women, and what she hears will, she hopes, lead to another media success. Her mission: to link networks of television and Internet programming under the umbrella of a single brand that is synonymous with intelligent, inspiring, empowering, witty, irreverent, and hip interactive programming for women-Oxygen Media, on cable and at www.oxygen.com.

As founder, chairman, and CEO of Oxygen (offices in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle), Laybourne is one of the most successful and widely known media moguls in the country. She is famous for her phenomenal success in the fierce and fickle business of entertainment and for her unusual management credo: Honor creative talent, have fun while working, and listen and be open to new ideas that come from everywhere and everyone, especially the audience.

At Nickelodeon, Laybourne put her theories into practice by instituting daily staff recess, supplying buckets of goop for staff to play with during meetings, situating her desk directly behind the receptionist's so that she could be easily accessible and approachable, and inviting kids into the offices to tell her what they wanted to see when they turned on their TVs.

Her formula led to widespread recognition: Emmy, Peabody, Cable ACE, and Parent's Choice awards as well as honors from the National Education Association and Action for Children's Television. Laybourne was listed among Time magazine's 25 most influential people in America (1996), Fortune magazine's "50 Most Powerful Women in American Business" (1998), Vanity Fair's "200 Most Influential Women" (1998), and Hollywood Reporter's 50 most influential women in the entertainment industry (1999). She sits on a number of prominent boards, including the White House Project, the President's Advisory Council of Teachers College at Columbia University, the National Council for Families and Television, and Vassar's own board of trustees.

Now, at Oxygen Media, Laybourne is taking on a different audience, but her methods are familiar. First, she asks questions: "What if chicks ruled TV?" is the one that led to Oxygen. Tess Gamboa, associate producer for the network's daily news and entertainment program Pure Oxygen, calls Laybourne the "mother hen in our little hen house." She says her boss is admired, but approachable, fun-loving but expects results. What impresses Sarah Chumsky, a Pure Oxygen segment producer, is that Laybourne is "very generous about listening to every intern's idea. Everybody has a way to contribute."

Laybourne says she has always been a listener, but it was during her senior year at Vassar that she truly learned the value of absorbing what others have to say and the importance of feeling heard.

"I was part of the master planning committee that planned how Vassar was going to go coeducational, and they listened to me," she says, remembering her amazement at how deans and even the president valued her thoughts about the monumental decision they were about to make. She never forgot the feeling and molded her management philosophy around it.

But listening isn't what it used to be. E-mail and electronic chat rooms, for example, expand theh possibilities for conversation, and Laybourne embraces the new technologies enthusiastically. Oxygen, in fact, is built around them. The company is among the first to build upon the concept of "converged technologies," which, according to company literature, means that Oxygen Media "combines the best qualities of the Internet and television to superserve modern women. A home base for women, Oxygen offers tools to simlify their lives and programming that matches their energy, wit, intelligence, and lifestyle."

In more mundane terms, convergence means that the average Jane will sit down at a single machine and be able to watch her favorite _program, chat with a program's guest or host, e-mail in her questions and programming ideas, and order an advertised product all at the same time. There's just one catch: The technology to make convergence happen at home isn't quite here. For now, women will just have to pair up their TVs and PCs to take full advantage of Oxygen's offerings.

It's a brave thing to build a company around technology that doesn't yet exist. But the relaxed, confident smile Laybourne wore on launch day morn-February 2, 2000, or 02.02.2000 in Oxygen lingo-showed only a sense of confidence and excitement. "I feel good," she admitted, casually sipping a Starbucks concoction. "It's exciting because everybody's worked really hard and now we get a chance to celebrate."

Everybody, she explained, meant almost 600 employees in offices in San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. It meant her husband Kit Laybourne, Oxygen's director of animation (the network boasts the first ever series of animated shorts for women, X-chromosome). It meant her daughter Emmy '93, cast member of an Oxygen comedy show still in development. It meant her son Sam, a New York City public school teacher who recruited a bunch of his Wesleyan chums to be some of Oxygen's first employees. It meant her co-founder Oprah Winfrey (yes the Oprah), and television gurus Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner, and Caryn Mandabach-the production dream team who created the Cosby Show, Roseanne, Cybill, and 3rd Rock from the Sun (to name a few), now in charge of developing original programming for Oxygen. It meant celebrities such as Candace Bergen, host of Oxygen's intimate nightly conversation show Exhale. And, in typical Laybourne fashion, it meant the thousands of women who had shared their ideas and opinions about women's television with Laybourne and Co. via chat rooms, Internet bulletin boards, e-mails, and focus groups.

Laybourne's journey to launch day began not in 1998 when she founded Oxygen, but in 1969 when she graduated from Vassar with a degree in art history. Intent on a career as an architect, she obtained a position at a Philadelphia architectural firm. It was there that she met her husband Kit, who was working as an educator and using his degree from the University of California at Los Angeles Film School to pioneer the use of media in the classroom. Laybourne found the work he was doing more interesting than architecture, so she changed direction and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1971 with a degree in elementary education.

Over the next decade, Laybourne taught and worked diligently with her husband to increase the technological know-how of educators and broadcasters. She created the Media Center for Children, a nonprofit educational resource library; contributed to the books More Films Kids Love and What to Do When the Lights Go On; worked with the Educational Products Information Exchange, a teacher-consumer group that evaluates educational resources; and worked at the American Film Festival. Then in 1979, she and her husband, together with animator Eli Noyes, created an independent production company, Early Bird Specials. One of their first customers was Nickelodeon, then an infant cable channel. In 1980, Nickelodeon hired her as a program manager. Four years later, she was the network's president.

In 1996, feeling she had done all she could for the network and longing for a new project, Laybourne moved to head Disney/ABC Cable Networks. There she managed the company's interests in Lifetime, The History Channel, E! Entertainment Television, Arts & Entertainment, the Disney Channel, and ABC's Saturday morning cartoons. She continued to work her own kind of magic in her new job, boosting the number of Disney Channel subscribers from 14 million to 42 million and delivering a much-needed recharge to ABC's Saturday morning children's line-up. But she felt stifled by corporate agendas, and in 1998 she left Disney/ABC.

At a crossroads in her career, Laybourne disciplined herself to rise at 6 A.M. each morning to write "stream-of-consciousness" in her journal. She _reflected upon her success in spawning a slew of programs and channels, for kids and by kids. She had done what she wanted to do for that audience. Looking forward, she asked herself what other viewer groups might be ripe for new kinds of programs.

Women, she decided, needed a hip, smart, honest, humorous, and sympathetic source of information and community. And new technologies were evolving that could not only be put to work in creating innovative programs to provide these benefits, but could also put Laybourne in closer contact with her audience than she had ever been before.

In the space of just two years, Laybourne made her vision of linked on-air and online networks a reality. She recruited her talented partners, learned about the Internet, developed a sales process, hired hundreds of employees, established offices across the country, started a partnership with Americca Online, and the list goes on and on. Even Laybourne gets out of breath trying to rattle off the details. Developing ideas, determining audiences, doing focus groups; "it's constant communication," she says. "Constant selling, constant bringing people in. It's huge. It's huge."

For all the effort already sunk into Oxygen, much hard work remains. The biggest obstacle is convincing cable operators to sign on. Oxygen is the largest start-up in the industry in the last five years, but as of launch day, Laybourne had been unable to get Oxygen carried in critical markets such as New York and parts of Los Angeles. "We'll be in ten million homes, which is pretty darn good for a start-up network," Laybourne said that day. "But it's a lot harder than I thought [to get the support of cable operators]."

Another major hurdle is the challenge of creating a media brand where none has ever existed. "That'll probably be the hardest thing-how do you come up with something that galvanizes women, that they feel good about, and that reflects our fresh and bold spirit?" questions Laybourne.

And then there are the skeptics, many of whom disagree with Laybourne's argument that women are an underserved television audience. After all, the Lifetime channel, which also targets women, is already in 75 million homes. Others argue that Laybourne is just sidling up to all the other women-targeted movies, books, television programs, and Websites that are perpetuating gender stereotypes of women rather than nurturing a new feminine spirit. Their arguments only inflame what Laybourne calls her "middle-child" urge to rebel and disprove.

"If anybody says to me, 'Oh, women just like victim-of-the-week movies,' that is like a rallying cry for me. I mean, I am going to prove they're wrong. I am going to prove that women are going to love the Internet," she insists.

What does Oxygen offer? The network's line-up of nonfiction (fictional dramas and sitcoms are as yet too expensive to produce) includes documentaries, yoga, exercise, game, and talk shows. Most programs have accompanying Websites where viewers can chat, express opinions, and share programming ideas with Oxygen staff.

"I know we've only begun to create what we need to create, so it's not like we've finished anything. It's just the beginning of more hard work," Laybourne acknowledges. But she relishes the challenge. "I was raised by a mother who grew up in the Depression in North Dakota. She trained her daughters that if we didn't drop at the end of the day we hadn't done our jobs."

That's an attitude Laybourne's going to have to hold on to in order to realize her plans for Oxygen's future. She hopes that the shows will expand and that the cable network will go global. But first, the network's programming and Website have to "get infused with a multicultural feeling." How? By learning about diverse cultural norms and incorporating them into Oxygen's programs and Internet sites.

Does she think women in other cultures will really be able to relate to Oxygen? "I think there are some universal things that hold all of us together," Laybourne answers. "Human rights, dignity, caring, learning through storytelling."

And of course, everyone likes to know that someone is listening.