Waiting to Exhale

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.

Still, maybe she gets over her distribution hurdles. With her current capital (she has raised hundreds of millions, and plans in the near future to raise hundreds of millions more) and, she undoubtedly figures, a big IPO, she can perhaps create, over time, some genuine, as she describes it, grassroots demand with something like an I-want-my-Oxygen Media marketing push across the nation. But even if you could engineer a successful cable launch – call it, even, the last successful cable launch in history – you might still be in big trouble. Because what has caught her, too, like wind shear, is a sudden, widespread sense of foreboding about the mutant nature of third-gen TV (that is, the uncharted world after network television, which was its first gen, and cable, its second) that she was supposed to embody.

Third-generation TV from the industry’s perspective, and Laybourne’s, too, is broadly about what is called convergence (“the queen of convergence,” The Industry Standard called Laybourne) – the power of TV and the power of the Internet are supposed to come together (“e-tailing off the back end,” people say). In Laybourne’s version, there is a cable station and related Websites and certain screen real estate (the bottom 12 percent of the screen) devoted to cross-marketing. She proposes, too, to somehow relate online discussions to the television shows.

There is obviously an enormous amount riding on the third generation of TV. In some sense, it is the dream upon which the Internet becomes profitable, and upon which television itself survives as a viable advertising and marketing medium.

But the nightmarish aspects of this are becoming increasingly clear as well. It’s sort of the Blair Witch factor, lately called the Voyeur TV wave – and it confounds both the content and the distribution sides. Indeed, the rush to program voyeur stuff (Big Brother is a hit European show coming to U.S. television that films twentysomethings living together in a house equipped with many cameras, which in turn mimics various Internet versions of this premise, which in turn mimic MTV’s The Real World) on network and cable stations is one of those become-the-instrument-of-your-own-demise moments.

On the way up from Oxygen’s ad-agency-hip offices, I stopped in at BNNtv.com, a radically less self-conscious little shop that is busily creating what it thinks will be 200 or 300 or 400 vertical channels (that is, the cat channel, the dating channel, the sex-offenders-talk-back channel, the skateboarding channel, or, for that matter, the makeup channel, along with channels carrying the brands of niche magazines), which will be programmed with what is called user-created video – i.e., no-cost video.

Now, I have heard all of the objections – I have made them myself: how we need editors, professional storytellers, respected reporters. I was at a dinner party the other night with an on-air network guy who kept talking about narrative discipline. But we are all wrong. Trust me.

At BNNtv, what they are doing is not just serving up amateur video (although amateur video no longer looks all that amateur) but editing this flood of video into a highly economical as well as compelling (if undisciplined) narrative (although this may be overstating the power of, if not the interest in, skateboard tricks).

The point is that digital video cameras, at 1,000 bucks or so, are one of the fast-selling consumer electronic items, and as good as anything a network news team carries around. Add to that editing software that does what it used to take a big investment in Avid equipment to do. Add to that the speed at which broadband (AOL Time Warner may be the breach in the Maginot Line of conventional TV) is coming. Which means that the effect the Web has had on print – a slow-motion, almost balletic transformation of the publishing industry – is about to happen to television. John Malone’s 500-station dial becomes something more like a 500,000-station dial. Or, really, such distinctions become meaningless – rather, we will be awash in video, personal, idiosyncratic, voyeuristic, weirdly compelling video that further divides and batters television’s audience.

Oxygen has a talk problem. when you announce your arrival as loudly as possible – when such hyperbole becomes a vital element of your business plan – and if you then fail to deliver on the expectations, the crowd turns against you. The Talk phenomenon has another aspect, too, which is that when you spend an incredible amount of money on what you know, or on what your career has been about, whether you’re Tina Brown or Gerry Laybourne, whether it is a monthly general-interest magazine or a content-rich cable channel, if, through no fault of your own, that thing that you do becomes suddenly, evidently, hopelessly old, you’re seriously screwed.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com.

Waiting to Exhale