LAYBOURNE, GERALDINE

U.S. Media Executive

Geraldine Laybourne is chairwoman and chief executive officer of Oxygen Media, a cable television/online network launched on February 2, 2000. She developed Oxygen after a two-year tenure in which she was in charge of Disney/ABC Television's cable operations. However, Laybourne gained her greatest renown for her work at Nickelodeon, a cable network targeted to children, where she was president until 1996. Laybourne was largely responsible for the overwhelming success Nickelodeon achieved in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when Nickelodeon, garnering a larger audience of child viewers of children's television than ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX, combined.

Laybourne began her tenure at Nickelodeon in 1980 as the network's program manager. Her prior background featured stints in both education and children's television programming, experiences that would serve her well at Nickelodeon. She then joined her husband Kit (a professional animator) as an independent producer of children's television programming. From this position she began, in 1979, to work with the new cable network Nickelodeon in the production of pilot programs. A year later she was named the company's program manager.

During Nickelodeon's early years Laybourne was instrumental in several key decisions that ultimately led to the network's long-term success. Nickelodeon came into being as a noncommercial program source created largely to serve as a goodwill tool through which cable system operators could win both franchise rights and subscribers. The company began to accept corporate underwriting in 1983, and became advertiser-supported a year later. Although it continued to devote fewer minutes per hour to advertising than most cable or broadcast commercial program sources, the initial decision to accept advertising was extremely controversial. The end result of the decision, however, was that Nickelodeon became an extremely profitable operation.

In 1985, Laybourne initiated the launch of the evening service Nick at Nite, which breathed new life into old television series such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Get Smart, and Dragnet. Nick at Night took series that had been syndicated for years, and presented them in an original, tongue-in-cheek environment designed to create a unique program flow and to appeal to an affluent "baby boomer" audience. Nick thus expanded Nickelodeon's programming hours and widened the network's appeal to new audience segments, and ultimately led to the launch of another 24-hour program service from Nickelodeon called TV Land.

With a number of accomplishments under her belt, Laybourne was named president of Nickelodeon in 1989, and in 1992 she became vice chairperson of corporate parent MTV Networks (owned by Viacom). In these positions, Laybourne continued her efforts to build the "brand equity" of the Nickelodeon name. To this end, Nickelodeon opened its own production studio at Universal's Orlando, Florida theme park; it licensed consumer products to companies such as toy manufacturers Mattel and Hasbro; and it produces a magazine aimed at children, which regularly includes a
Q and A section with "The Boss Lady," as Laybourne came to be known by Nickelodeon's young viewers.

Nickelodeon has also produced programs aired on outlets other than the cable network itself. For instance, its youth-oriented game show Double Dare was syndicated to broadcast stations, and its 1991 sitcom Hi Honey, I'm Home represented a cable landmark in that its episodes aired within the same week on both cable network Nickelodeon and broadcast network ABC. Such synergistic strategies became even more prevalent after Paramount Communication's takeover of Viacom in 1994. For example, Nickelodeon played a central role in the cross media promotional strategies Paramount employed leading up to its successful 1995 theatrical release of The Brady Bunch Movie, and Nickelodeon's popular Rugrats series became a prominent feature film in 1998, with a sequel released in 2000.

Under Laybourne's leadership, Nickelodeon grew from a fledgling, noncommercial programmer that existed largely to serve the cable industry's public image purposes, to a profitable and acclaimed program source that has become a core service in the channel lineups of virtually every U.S. cable system. In so doing, Laybourne became one of the foremost figures among cable television programmers, as well as one of the most influential women in the television industry. Her launch of Oxygen - with partners that include Oprah Winfrey, Microsoft cofounder and cable television magnate Paul Allen, and the Hollywood production team of Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner, and Caryn Mandabach - represented an ambitious step to create a multimedia content provider targeted to women. Although Oxygen initially struggled, it nevertheless promised to present Laybourne with many opportunities to exercise her unique and prescient vision of television's role in contemporary society.

-David Gunzerath


Geraldine Laybourne
Photo courtesy of Geraldine Laybourne
Photo Credit: Heidi Gutman

GERALDINE LAYBOURNE. Born Geraldine Bond, 19 May 1947. B.A., Art History, Vassar College, 1969; M.S., Elementary Education, University of Pennsylvania, 1971. Married: Kit Laybourne, 1970; children: Emily and Sam. Started career as administrator at architectural firm of Wallace, McHarg, Roberts & Todd, Philadelphia, 1969-70; teacher, Concord Academy, Concord, Massachusetts, 1972-73; festival coordinator, American Film Festival, New York, 1974-76; co-founder, Media Center for Children, New York, 1974-77; partner, Early Bird Specials Co., New York, 1978-80; program manager, Nickelodeon, 1980; various acquisition, scheduling and programming positions at Nickelodeon, 1981-86; senior vice-president and general manager, Nick at Nite, 1986-87; executive vice president and general manager, 1987-89; president from 1989; vice chairperson of MTV Networks from 1992; vice-president for cable operation, Disney/ABC, 1996-98; chairwoman and chief executive officer, Oxygen Media, since 1998.

FURTHER READING

Brooker, Katrina, "Oxygen Is Can't-See TV; That's a Good Thing," Fortune (January 8, 2001)

Burgi, Michael. "Disney/ABC Eyes Cable Nets." MediaWeek (Brewster, New York), 1 January 1996.

Dempsey, John. "Mighty Mouse Nips at Nick." Variety (Los Angeles), 18 December 1995.

Ellerbee, Linda. "The Saint of Nick." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 30 October 1993.

Mifflin, Lawrie. "Nickelodeon Executive to Head Disney/ABC Cable Unit." The New York Times, 16 December 1995.

 

See also Children and Television