Network: The new girls' network

Oxygen's CEO is on a mission to bring women, TV and the Net together.
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The Independent Culture
In an age when technology is supposedly king, it turns out that individual human beings still make a difference. The proof came when three of the most powerful women in American TV launched this month. People tuned in.

Hopes are high that the same will happen when Oxygen Media launches its 24-hour cable channel on 1 January. For the multimedia company, of which Oprah Winfrey is a "founding mother", has grand ambitions. It is attempting what technology and media giants have so far failed to do; change the passive, one-way nature of TV by combining it with the Net.

Geraldine Laybourne, 51, Oxygen's ballsy CEO, knows it won't be an easy ride. Time Warner, Bell Atlantic and Microsoft have all tried and failed to master interactive TV. They have spent billions along the way. However, "Gerry", as she likes to be called, has the high-powered contacts and the backing of Wall Street that could make all the difference. Plus, she knows her audience - women.

Last May, Laybourne quit her post as president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks after three successful years to set up her own multimedia empire with her husband, Kit, a film-maker. (ABC is now one of Oxygen's financial backers.) "Five years from now, we'd like to be in 50 million homes with a cable network, and to be part of women's daily lives online," she says.

Laybourne has recruited two chums, Winfrey, and hotshot producer Marcy Carsey to help her achieve that aim. Their long-term goal is to create "synchronous webcasting". They envisage that women will be able to watch a TV programme on, say, widows coping with their changed financial circumstances. Then they will be able to go to a website for more information; get tips from experts, and find links to financial institutions.

Having Winfrey on board speaks volumes. "If there's any media personality and any media show that's universally respected by women, it's the Oprah Winfrey Show," Laybourne says. The TV talk-show queen plans to give up her daily forum to concentrate on Oxygen in 2002. Until then, she will provide input and ideas. Her own site, Oprah Online, premieres on 1 August.

The Internet is another medium, like television, where Laybourne feels women have been neglected. "Despite being the single most powerful consumer block - controlling 85 per cent of personal and household goods spending, and 70 per cent of all consumer spending - we have been grossly underserved by traditional marketeers and advertisers," she says. Her aim is to attract busy mothers, single career women, and more teenagers online - "a somewhat neglected segment of the population, this is the 70 million people born after 1979 who have grown up with a computer".

Oxygen purchased three websites from AOL last year which are devoted to women who want to take charge of their complicated lives - Electra (career issues), Thrive (health), and Moms Online (parenting). "Our Oxygen sites have to reflect how we women actually lead our busy lives," Laybourne says. "We need up-to-date information about finances, parenting and health - and we need it fast.

"We also need to feel like we're part of a supportive community. We envision Oxygen as an extension of the `back fence', a place where women can talk with other women and seek `expert' advice from experts who have shared our experiences, not experts who think they understand us because they've read a book or hold a degree."

Laybourne, a mother of two daughters, both in their twenties, embarked on a career in television after graduating from Vassar College with a degree in art history, followed by a short stint as a teacher. However, her media training began much earlier. When she and her two sisters were growing up in New Jersey, their mother, who wrote radio soap operas, would switch off the TV before a show had finished and demand that her daughters write the conclusion. Meanwhile, Laybourne's father, who was a stock broker, cultivated her business sense.

In 1979, Laybourne started a production company with her husband and approached a little-known cable network called Nickelodeon with a pilot. She landed a job and, over the next 16 years, helped build it into the top-rated children's TV network in the US, by gambling on edgy shows which did not talk down to kids. It is that same approach, to go beyond the mainstream, that sets Oxygen apart from its competitors. "She turned what was a `spinach' channel, something kids should eat, into a `pizza' channel, something kids wanted to eat," says Robert Pittman, president of AOL, who was Laybourne's boss at Nickelodeon.

Even Laybourne's rivals pretend to be excited by her entry on to the Net. "This will be a great competition," said Candice Carpenter, CEO of iVillage, the largest website for women, on hearing that AOL had sold Laybourne three of its women-related sites. And, if Laybourne wins, it will make her very rich. Wealthy enough, at least, to allow her to enjoy her latest hobby - golf. A game for the old boys' network if ever there was one.