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Waiting to Exhale

For Geraldine Laybourne, the queen of pure content, the real battle won't be for viewers but for cable space. Will women care enough to declare: "I want my Oxygen"?

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Gerry Laybourne is the sentimental favorite to lead the TV industry into the future. This is partly because she has pioneered a qualitatively different kind of career in television. People genuinely like her. Respect her, even. She is "more obviously a good person than many people in equivalent positions of power," says a mutual friend, which is something. She is authentic (as opposed to the run-of-the-mill phony baloneys of television): Not only was she a schoolteacher of long standing before she entered the television business (by now the stuff of industry myth), but she still, in many ways, seems like one. Indeed, the head of programming at Oxygen is one of her former students. And even though she may not be entirely free of the ego issues of other television executives (how could she be?), hers, says an admirer, is "a level of self-involvement which by standards of her peers is not very large." Simply, says this admirer, "she is not an asshole."

On top of her relative goodness, there is, of course, her success. She is a genuine hero of the second generation of television -- up there with John Malone (perhaps more of an anti-hero) of TCI; Bob Pittman, who fairly or unfairly gets the credit for MTV; Barry Diller, for home shopping and a fourth network; Ted Turner, for CNN. She can, obviously, play the game -- a nurturing Earth Mother but a powerful political infighter too.

Add to that the fact that what she does is basically wonderfullish. We certainly love Nick in our house. Compare Nickelodeon, for instance, with Fox's Saturday-morning kids' shows (although Power Rangers have had their moment in our house, too). And now, of course, she's launching a network, on TV and on the Web, around gender-based, emotionally up-front, nonviolent, nonexploitive programming.

I think what this all means, her mix of decency and uplifting interests, and the reason she has come to be the standard-bearer of not only what is best in television but the very future of the medium, is that she is, quite simply, a content person. And for better or worse, she represents, and, many jittery people feel, may be a kind of last chance for, content people in an increasingly distribution-dominated media world. The level of her particular righteousness, the quasi-evangelical aspect of her business plan -- she speaks of what she is doing as being a "grassroots movement" -- suggest a stubborn, last-hurrah kind of thing, even a good-and-evil face-off. I am content; hear my roar.

Oxygen has a "Talk" problem. When you announce your arrival as loudly as possible, and if you then fail to deliver, the crowd turns against you.

Cable has traditionally been the place for the low-rent, cheapie content of the Food Network or Romance Classics or Home & Garden Television or even early MTV (still one of the more brilliant examples of no-cost content). Low-cost programming (call it the Tool Time paradigm) has allowed these channels to gradually and painstakingly build a viable network -- from, say, access to an audience of 2 million or 3 million cable subscribers to real money at 50 million or 60 million subscribers.

It would have been a more obvious business strategy, in other words, for Laybourne to forgo the complex programming demands of a high-concept, full-service network for women (not just complex but competitive too) and to have opted for, say, the Makeup Channel.

But most cable channels are not content plays at all -- even cheapie ones. Rather, most channels achieve significant distribution because they're owned by one of cable's powerful players (Lifetime, for instance, one of Oxygen's primary competitors, is co-owned by Hearst, a cable-programming and -distribution force).

The Laybourne proposition bucks both approaches. She wants to sell neither equity nor soul. This refusal has become the method as much as the goal of her business plan. Precisely because she has not sold out, she would argue, viewers, and hence cable operators, will buy her. Hers is, in other words, the purest of content plays.

She has certainly magnified her own brand -- the Laybourne imprimatur means something good for America -- by working a careful press campaign of high-minded speeches and favorable interviews (she declined to be interviewed for this column). She has recruited as her partners Oprah, who has possibly the most valuable content brand in the world, and Carsey Werner, one of television's most successful creators of content.

What's more, she has wrapped herself in a new-media flag, speaking at technology-industry conferences; targeting the growing and, she argues, under-served audience of women on the Web as one of her key constituencies; and building a hip headquarters (designed by the architects who designed the Nick headquarters and her house in Telluride) in one of the new-media factories on the far West Side.

As part of her faith in the value of her content (and her content brand), hers is, unlike other cable channels that have launched in recent years, unwilling to pay for distribution (a.k.a. "carriage"). Reaching back to the cable model of the early Nickelodeon era, Laybourne is looking for operators to pay her eighteen to twenty cents a subscriber. Nice work if you can get it.

Now, there is nothing especially wrong with this picture -- she may well have the interesting, clever, emotionally attuned shows that will attract an important women's audience -- except the fundamental disconnect between distribution and content. It is amazingly hard for content people to understand (I don't understand it myself) why a distributor would forgo a really strong chance at doing right and doing well (praise and profits). But roughly speaking, a distributor's motivation is more specifically dollar- than hit-driven -- today's guarantee is more compelling than tomorrow's fame and fortune. Even beyond the up-front amount content providers are expected to guarantee, an MSO's (multiple system operator's) concerns are of an immediate and basic nature: How is your channel (versus other channels clambering at the door) going to help me in my customer-acquisition efforts? How is your channel going to help me in my fight against satellite competitors?

So far, after nearly a year of selling Oxygen to cable operators, Laybourne has only 7 to 10 million viewers -- and no place on the dial in New York.

When the merger of AOL, an investor in Oxygen (along with Bernard Arnault's LVMH and Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures), with Time Warner was announced, many Oxygen partisans were joyful. Laybourne's friend Bob Pittman would simply have Steve Case call Gerry Levin and arrange carriage on the all-important Time Warner cable network.

That, to distributors, is a very funny idea of distribution -- that there is any way to shortcut the Darwinian process.


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