President of Nickelodeon Channels Her Resources : Television: President Geraldine Laybourne couples creativity and business acumen in making cable network top choice among children.


Geraldine Laybourne's maternal grandmother, a tough-talking South Dakota farm woman, once used a large stick to break the arm of a traveling salesman who was arguing with her husband.

Her paternal grandfather was a Republican congressman from a largely Democratic New York district and chairman of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board until he was 92 years old.

Mix that with the creativity of her mother, a radio soap opera actress, writer and producer, and the business know-how of her stockbroker father, and the result is explosive.

It is at least partly responsible for the big success of the children's television channel Nickelodeon, which Laybourne has helped guide almost since its inception 16 years ago.

Since 1989, Laybourne, 48, a smallish woman with a broad face, impish eyes and a tight-lipped smile, has been president of Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite. She more recently added the title of vice chairman of MTV Networks. Both Nickelodeon and MTV are owned by Viacom Inc.

Nickelodeon, best known for Green Slime, Gak and the Juicy Booger Lady, and for programs including "Gullah Gullah Island," "Rugrats" and "Clarissa Explains It All," leads the children's TV market.

The cable network now reaches 66% of homes nationwide and picks up 40% of the children's viewing audience.

In the most recent quarter, more people watched Nickelodeon than watched any of the other basic cable services, including ESPN, CNN and MTV--about 1.1 million viewers daily. That represented a 35% increase over a year earlier, the company said.

"American families are lucky to have [Laybourne] in charge, because she cares about choice and diversity, about role models for girls, about getting kids involved in helping the planet survive," said Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television. "Within the limits of a commercial system, she makes that channel as good as she can."

Nickelodeon's secret is appealing directly to kids and constantly adapting, never sitting on a tried-and-true formula, Laybourne said.

The network, long popular with grade school children, is now bidding for the preschoolers who are hooked on "Sesame Street" and "Barney and Friends."

At the same time, Nickelodeon has begun its foreign expansion, moving into England two years ago and stepping this year into Germany and Australia.

The cable network is also branching into businesses such as publishing, merchandising and--with the merger last year between Viacom and Paramount Communications Inc.--movies.

Nickelodeon is now shooting its first feature film and has 20 other projects in development; a monthly magazine reaches 550,000 homes, and Nickelodeon licenses more than 400 toys and other items worldwide.

Admirers credit Laybourne for this success.

"Her attitude of encouraging people to do their best, of making space for them to do their best, is a wonderful one," said Linda Ellerbee, former newscaster and now president of Lucky Duck Productions, which produces a news-for-kids segment for Nickelodeon. "Gerry listens to everyone, whether they are an intern or vice president. She doesn't play power games."

Laybourne was born Geraldine Bond in 1947 in Martinsville, N.J., a rural community of about 400. The second of four children, she describes her parents as "leaders of our community."

Her parents, she said, fought for bond issues; and although her mother quit her soap opera career when she married, at 27, she "basically ran every organization that had to do with schools."

As a child, the business world was familiar to Laybourne--her father took her to meetings.

Laybourne's mother encouraged creativity, taking the children to painting classes and turning off the television set before the end of a show so they could write the ending.

"It's sort of why I'm comfortable in either world," Laybourne said.

Her college years were spent at Vassar College, where she majored in art history. She graduated in 1969 and went to work for an architectural firm in Philadelphia, where the next year she met and married her husband, Kit.

He was an animator, a recent graduate of UCLA film school who had managed a draft deferment from the Vietnam War by becoming an educator. When the two met, Kit Laybourne was teaching media to Philadelphia schoolchildren.

That seemed much more exciting than the work she was doing, and Laybourne--as she describes it--quit to follow her husband. She got a master's degree in elementary education from the University of Pennsylvania, and during those years their children, Emmy and Sam, were born, three years apart.

It was Kit, Laybourne said, who taught her how to have fun.

"Raising kids together taught me about what kids need, and that's what Nickelodeon is all about," Laybourne said. "Just a trip to the grocery store with him turned into a game."

After a year of teaching media at bucolic Concorde Academy in Massachusetts, the family moved to New York, where Laybourne, worried about the television her children were watching, co-founded the Media Center for Children.

"The objective was to help teachers bring media into the classroom and also to broaden the concept of what kids want," Laybourne said.

Later, with her husband and another animator, she created a company to bring independent films to the networks. Nickelodeon was one of their first clients.

In 1980, Laybourne signed on as program manager at the year-old network, where she initiated the focus-group approach to programming.

Nickelodeon now hosts about 250 sessions a year among children to figure out what they want. Nickelodeon's idea, she said, is not to educate or to impose but to entertain kids on their level.

Hence slime, Gak, the Juicy Booger Lady and the rest of it--concepts that cause parents to shudder and children to squeal in delight.

The network, which started accepting advertising in 1984, has grown into a significant commercial success as the channel of choice for the 7- to 12-year-old group.

Laybourne is "very smart," said Charren. "She knew the best way to get kids was to make them feel it was their channel."

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