American business executive Geraldine Laybourne (born 1947) has been a groundbreaking pioneer in the field of cable television programming. She helped turn the children's network Nickelodeon into one of the most powerful in television, and in 2002 she launched Oxygen, a new cable network geared exclusively toward women.
As undeniably one of the most powerful women in American broadcasting, Laybourne defied convention in rising to her current position as chairman and CEO of Oxygen Media, a 24-hour cable television and media conglomerate geared toward women. In fact, along with business partners such as media moguls Oprah Winfrey and Microsoft magnate Paul Allen, Laybourne can rightly be considered, in the multi-billion dollar world of American broadcasting, as among the most influential and groundbreaking executives regardless of gender. As a woman who has seen women's expectation levels rise from "the kitchen" to "the boardroom" in her lifetime, the 59-year-old grandmother has compromised neither her femininity nor her sense of humor while following her ground-breaking career path.
Having entered the cable industry in its early days, Laybourne has been honored for her many contributions to the industry, including being named as one of the 25 most influential people in America by Time magazine in 1996. She has received many of television's most prestigious awards, including the Annenberg Public Policy Center award for Distinguished Lifetime Contribution to Children and Television, the New York Women in Communications Matrix Award for Broadcasting, and the Creative Coalition's Spotlight Award. In 1995 she was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame.
Family First, Thena Career
Unlike many businesswomen of today, who have considerably more career options, Laybourne was born in 1947, in a time before women were encouraged to work outside of the home, much less as heads of major corporations. What makes her success even more remarkable is the fact that she did marry, raise two children, and then switched careers (she had been a teacher) before embarking on a business career in her early thirties. Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, Laybourne had no shortage of strong, business-minded women around her while she was growing up. Her grandmother founded a seed potato company in North Dakota, and her mother was a strong community activist. "My grandmother was tough as nails," Laybourne told a Colorado Women's Chamber of Commerce audience, as quoted on WomenOf.com, "but people thought it was great working for her. And my mother was one of the most gifted people I knew. She made sure her daughters knew how important it was to make a difference, and to be economically independent."
After receiving a bachelor's degree in art history from Vassar College in 1969 and a master's degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania in 1971, Laybourne worked for a brief period as a teacher while raising her two children (her husband is veteran television producer and animator Kit Laybourne). In 1973 she began working as an independent producer developing children's television. After two pilots failed to sell, Laybourne began working on projects with a new cable company geared toward children, called Nickelodeon. In 1980 she joined Nickelodeon as a program manager, using her own two children as spring-boards for ideas. "I'd make my kids watch endless hours of TV from Canada and Czechoslovakia, then call to ask them for the names of the shows," Laybourne told Multichannel News. "They were very influential in the development of Nick."
Seeking to separate Nickeldoeon from more conventional programming, such as the more strictly educational fare from PBS and the mindless cartoons from the other networks, Laybourne helped establish Nickelodeon's creative, edgy style on such programs as Double Dare and Ren & Stimpy. Children enjoyed the way that Nickeldoeon programs were fun without insulting their intelligence, and ratings grew steadily. By 1989 Laybourne was president of Nickelodeon, and the network to this day has remained one of the most powerful in television, present in 66 million homes, with spinoff marketing, movies, and more. Much of that success has been due to Laybourne's creative drive in the network's early days. "Nothing daunted Gerry," former colleague Anne Sweeney told Multichannel News. "She was a force of nature, and you could just feel the momentum." Laybourne stayed with Nickelodeon until 1995, and from 1993 to 1995 she served as vice chairman of the network's parent company, MTV Networks. From 1996 to 1998 Laybourne served a brief term as president of Disney ABC Cable Networks, but by this time her creative bent was formulating a plan for her most ambitious project yet.
A New Network for Women
After leaving Disney in 1998, Laybourne received a call from her friend, television producer Marcy Carsey, part of the Carsey-Tom Werner-Caryn Mandabach team that had produced such hits as The Cosby Show, Roseanne and Third Rock from the Sun. Carsey promised that if Laybourne started a new network for and about women, then she, Werner, and Mandabach would develop the programming. Laybourne named her new venture Oxygen. "It came from a sense that everybody needed more breathing room." Laybourn explained in Newsweek. "It felt like a good rallying cry."
Next order of business: find a backer with the star power and financial muscle to get a fledgling network off the ground. Laybourne had to look no further than the first person on her list—Oprah Winfrey. It turned out that Winfrey was already somewhat familiar with Laybourne's work, having read an inspirational article about the executive in the New York Times. The growing team then traded part ownership rights to America Online in exchange for three of its top women's online websites, for it was Laybourne's vision to support the television network with a vibrant convergent internet strategy. Eventually Oxygen Media grew to 13 internet sites. An equally ambitious plan called for a budget of $450 million to produce many hours of original programming.
Broke Traditional Management Rules
Working out of the company's New York offices, in a renovated former cookie factory, Laybourne brought to her work the same energetic, playful management style that had become industry legend from her days at Nickelodeon. She has been known, for instance, to start her days with boxing lessons at seven o'clock in the morning. At Nickelodeon she helped staff loosen up by instituting afternoon "recess." At Oxygen all new employees get a gift basket along with a wallet-sized card that carries the company's mission statement: "Releasing the energy of women to do great things." There are "idea-sheets" hanging in strategic locations on the bathroom walls, and, in accordance with her open-door policy, Laybourne's office has a conference table that any staff member can commandeer for an impromptu meeting.
While this kind of "outside the box" management may be more acceptable in 2006, it was certainly a new approach back when Laybourne was getting started. At Nickelodeon in the 1980s it was bold enough that she was running the company as a woman, much less that she was breaking the time-honored management rules of "the good old boy network." At a time when businesswomen were counseled to dress more like men in business suits, and to use sports metaphors that men might understand, Laybourne was mature and confident enough to be herself. It helped that she was a mother running a children's network, and that the cable industry was a new and lightly regarded industry. "No one wanted my job," she joked on WomenOf.com. And in a speech to the Colorado Women's Chamber of Commerce, quoted on the WomenOf.com website, she counseled her audience on the advantages women bring to the workplace.
Laybourne, in her speech (quoted on the Women Of.com website), discussed the ability of women to understand the value of relationships and teambuilding; men want a winner and a loser, while women want a collaborative process where everyone wins. She mentioned that women have 12 percent more space in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, allowing them to hold multiple thoughts and switch from one topic to another with ease. Laybourne believes that women want a purpose greater than just making money and women are good at "coaching, listening, and empowering." In the same speech, Laybourne further defined her philosophy by pointing out where women tend to fall short in business. She spoke of women lacking decisiveness, and women being less assertive in making sure they get credit for their own accomplishments. Laybourne feels that women become discouraged—and are not quick enough to "get over it,"—when things do not go their way. She also mentions that older women in particular, perhaps because they want to be taken seriously, are sometimes too directed and not playful enough about their work.
Grew Steadily at Oxygen
Laybourne's keen programming sense and business acumen have contributed greatly to her success, and though Oxygen has experienced some ups and downs in its first five years, in 2006, she and Oxygen appeared poised to break through with another winner.
After a rocky first year that saw her scrap Oxygen's online strategy, lay off 250 staffers, and feel the heat from such big-money partners as Winfrey and Microsoft's Allen, Laybourne refocused her efforts on comedy programming. In 2002 she hired branding guru Dale Pon to create the "Oh!" marketing campaign featuring Madonna and other celebrities. Meanwhile, Laybourne continued to use her considerable experience and reputation to get Oxygen placement on prime cable operators' lineups. While progress was slow, it was steady, and ahead of Laybourne's personal goal. By 2004 the network had become profitable, with a presence in 54 million homes. "We continue to double our advertising base every year," Laybourne told Cable World in 2005. "We went from 8 million to 54 million homes, growing at about almost 10 million a year. And the increases in our ratings from 2002 to 2005 are up 374 percent (in prime time) … and we're in the vicinity of Bravo, E!, and VH1." Industry executive Michael Willner credited Laybourne's eternal optimism as crucial in producing Oxygen's rise against such difficult odds. "She accomplishes so much by the simple belief that nothing is impossible," Willner told Cable World. "That's the under-lying reason why Oxygen succeeded without the help of mega-media ownership."
Cable World, February 21, 2005.
Forbes, June 7, 1993.
Multichannel News, October 11, 2004.
Newsweek, November 15, 1999.
Time, June 17, 1996.
"Geraldine Laybourne: Chairman and CEO," Oxygen Network, http://www.oxygen.com/basics/founders.aspx (March 17, 2006).
"Woman of the Month: Geraldine Laybourne," WomenOf.com, http://www.womenof.com/News/wm_10_6_03.asp (March 17, 2006).