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KIDS’ TV--SHE WALKS THE WALK

Sallie Hofmeister is a Times business writer who covers the television industry

High above New York’s 66th Street, in the conservative, brick-faced headquarters of Capital Cities/ABC Inc., Geraldine Laybourne, its new head of cable networks, occupies a spacious executive office, tastefully uncluttered, though a bit bland--for her. There are none of the loopy flourishes Laybourne used to define the headquarters of Nickelodeon, the children’s network she built from scratch for Viacom Inc. into the nation’s top-rated cable channel: no serpent-shaped desk, radical contours, tiny bicycles or bowling pins.

The one impish note amid the serious big-business trappings is an outsize topographical cross-section of an earthworm, a relic from a 1950s grade-school science class. The worm arrived shortly after Laybourne took the job in February of building a family of cable channels for ABC and its new parent, the Walt Disney Co. It came as a peace offering from John Kricfalusi, the in-your-face animator who got his big break when Laybourne bought Ren and Stimpy, characters who’d been hiding in his notebook for years. A dispute over the direction of the cartoon ended their collaboration in 1992, but Kricfalusi longed for reconciliation. He thought the worm, his studio’s mascot, might strike a sentimental chord. “Whenever she came to visit, she always stopped in the hallway and stared blissfully at the worm,” he says. “I don’t want her and I to be separated.”

Laybourne made her mark as an emissary for unproven animators and TV producers like Kricfalusi, found in Hollywood backwaters too brackish for mainstream studios like Disney and Warner Bros. to troll. People who know her say Laybourne’s passion for offbeat originality, her crusader’s drive and knack for fashioning programs that tap into unrealized yearnings of TV viewers catapulted her career, changed cable economics and children’s television and crowned her the grande dame of entertainment for the preteen set.

During the ‘80s, when the major television networks were bailing out of children’s programming or basing shows on characters that could double as toys to turn a profit, Laybourne, a former elementary school teacher, offered a counterculture that still flies in the face of Fox’s macho Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and the goody-goody fairy lands of Disney.

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Nickelodeon created a sassy wonder world of forbidden fruits: green slime showers, neurotic creatures like Ren and Stimpy, a Bill of Rights for kids and labels like “The Awfuls” for humorless adults.

While Mickey napped in Disneyland and the Public Broadcasting Service’s Big Bird waited for companion hits to “Sesame Street,” Nickelodeon’s worth climbed to more than $4 billion. Ratings show that American children ages 6 to 11 spend half their time in front of the tube tuned to the cable network. Nickelodeon became the voice for children, and Laybourne, an outspoken mother of two who took over the network on a trial basis in 1984, became their advocate and “Boss Lady"--her pen name for columns in Nickelodeon’s monthly magazine and Internet chats.

“In the early days, I didn’t look at Nick as a competitor,” says Michael Eisner, Disney’s chairman. “But in the latter days, I looked at Nick not only as a competitor, but for ideas. There are a lot of Disney imitators, but Nick does it the best because it never tried to be Disney. It was itself.”

Disney’s own network for children, the Disney Channel, reaches far fewer households than Nickelodeon. Says Eisner, in mild admission: “I’d rather have someone who killed me in court working for me than someone who lost.”

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Laybourne’s track record, and her broader sphere of influence at Disney/ABC, landed her in June on Time magazine’s list of America’s 25 most influential people. Laybourne is unquestionably the most powerful woman in television and part of a coterie of high-ranking female media executives that includes Sherry Lansing, her friend and Paramount studio chief; Lucy Salhany, president and chief executive of the UPN television network; Kay Koplovitz, founder of USA Network; Marcy Carsey, who co-founded the company that produces TV’s “Roseanne,” “The Cosby Show” (old and new) and “Cybill,” and Jamie Tarses, president of ABC Entertainment. At ABC, Laybourne is the only woman among the nine executives who run operating divisions and report directly to Capital Cities/ABC President Robert Iger.

Her mandate is broad. She is expanding the Disney Channel overseas and sharpening its focus at home to make it as much a crusade for the American family as Nick is a crusade for kids. She sits on the boards of Lifetime Television, A&E; and the History Channel--all healthy channels in which ABC has an investment. She is looking to acquire networks or spin new ones from assets within Disney and ABC to take advantage of a multiplying number of channels worldwide. Television channels that can be exported for sale to either satellite or cable operators are helping entertainment companies offset the effects of a slow-growing TV market at home and narrowing margins on movies as costs rise.

Disney is also trying to capitalize on Laybourne’s politically correct profile as a children’s advocate in Washington, where educational programming has become an issue for broadcasters. She represented ABC in July at President Clinton’s summit on children’s programming, held on the eve of the enactment of hotly contested rules requiring broadcasters to air a minimum of three hours of educational programming each week. She has committed to launching an educational channel for children despite broadcasters’ doubts about whether kids will watch. And though broadcast television was not originally part of her purview, Iger says Laybourne is the “official advisor” for a Saturday morning children’s block starting this fall that will feature mostly Disney shows.

At the least, Laybourne hopes her rise will dim the notion of limits to a woman’s corporate ascent. “One of the big motivating factors in taking this job is that, for me, it was the final shattering of the glass ceiling,” she says. “I would like to electrocute the person who invented the idea of a glass ceiling as a metaphor. Women bring a whole set of different approaches that are needed in business, and concepts like the glass ceiling contain us in our own minds.”

Laybourne advanced the careers of many women at Nickelodeon, whose staff is predominantly female even though its top executive, Laybourne’s former deputy, Herb Scannell, now is president. Several of her proteges hold key positions in cable: Deborah Beece, who started as a secretary, is now president of Nickelodeon Movies; Anne Sweeney, a onetime assistant of Laybourne’s, launched Fox Broadcasting’s fX cable channel in 1994 and was recruited by her old boss to become president of the Disney Channel.

But Laybourne, 49, found her own growth stymied at Viacom. She controlled Nickelodeon and its Nick at Nite offshoot and was vice chairman of MTV Networks, which includes MTV and VH-1, but had limited range beyond cable. Her boss, Tom Freston, was firmly entrenched as chairman of the cable group.

Laybourne has management layers above her at ABC and Disney, too. But she oversees cable alone and is an advisor in a number of other corporate activities. What’s more, Disney is one-third larger than Viacom. “This is the perfect congregation of assets,” she says about her motivations for taking the job. “To have influence over Lifetime and what it can be for women and to reinvent the Disney Channel as a place where families can really get together are interesting new challenges.” *

Laybourne was the first consequential hire by disney after it announced plans last summer to spend $19 billion to take over Capital Cities/ABC. The largest media transaction on record, the merger is a risky gambit uniting a major Hollywood studio and children’s programmer with a top television network to extend Disney’s reach into the home, assure air time for its programs and more deeply penetrate world markets by piggybacking on ABC’s global ESPN powerhouse. ABC is now the likeliest outlet for Disney’s TV series and movies, which include shows like “Home Improvement” and “Ellen” that already air on the network. The network can also help promote the studio’s theme parks, stores and theatrical movies. Not coincidentally, Laybourne’s expertise lies where Disney’s and the network’s businesses intersect: children’s television. Her success formulas to a large degree mimicked Disney’s: The Nickelodeon banner was used to branch into movies, publishing, a theme park attraction and products for kids.

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“Her influence is more than just cable,” Eisner says. “She will be instrumental in helping us stitch ABC and Disney together.” Disney has already indicated how cross-pollination will apply to ABC. It is teaming with ABC Radio Networks to develop a 24-hour service for children incorporating Disney programming. This summer, it preempted the network schedule to air a special on the making of the studio’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to pump up box office attendance. In addition to packaging the Saturday morning schedule, Disney is reviving a weekend night at the movies on ABC TV. Laybourne has already recruited a handful of writers and producers from Nickelodeon to work on Disney shows for ABC.

For Disney, building a children’s television juggernaut has been elusive. Its two-hour “Disney Afternoon” for kids will be scaled back next year when the segment is bumped off many independent stations that are switching to programming from the WB and UPN networks. In cable, the Disney Channel is considered an embarrassment, failing to capitalize on Disney’s household name. It has less than a third as many subscribers as Nickelodeon, in part because it is mostly a premium channel not included in the basic package and costs extra. And the 13-year-old network has been slow to answer exploding international demand for entertainment as foreign countries have opened up to outside competition. Rival Cartoon Network, for instance, has been available in the United States for only four years but is already the No. 1 children’s channel in the United Kingdom.

ABC’s ESPN is key to Disney’s international expansion. Nothing travels better across borders than sports and children’s programs. Eisner envisions bundling the Disney Channel for sale to global satellite services together with its stronger sister, ESPN. Such a package should give Disney more clout against such forces as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which has used sports rights to dominate several foreign markets and owns the No. 2 children’s television programmer, the Fox Children’s Network. Time Warner will also be better equipped to sell channels by the bunch when it finalizes the purchase this fall of Turner Broadcasting System, which owns the Cartoon Network.

Disney expects Laybourne to multiply its own offerings. But launching new channels at home for later export is daunting. Most U.S. cable systems don’t have space for new channels, and building an audience big enough for these networks to register a profit can take years because of today’s sea of TV choices and the popularity of the Internet.

In fact, two channels on the drawing board when Laybourne arrived have already been shelved. In May, ABC canceled plans for a 24-hour news channel. With its network falling to second place behind NBC in the ratings and problems surfacing elsewhere, Disney was unwilling to subsidize the high cost of competing against a strong incumbent, CNN, and newcomers with partners. Fox is pairing up with leading cable operator Tele-Communications Inc. and paying cable systems a princely fee to carry its news channel. NBC is up and running with its MSNBC, partnered with Microsoft Corp. to ease an investment that could easily exceed $1 billion. “The decision was entirely mine and was based on economics,” Iger says. “Gerry can’t be blamed.”

ABC also abandoned a soap opera channel after its affiliates complained that their daytime audiences would shrink if viewers could watch the soaps the same night on cable--highlighting another difficulty in transporting network programming to new media.

Though Laybourne’s plate is now less crowded, Disney appears eager to deploy her as its resident expert on new kid ventures. For instance, Laybourne is advising the company on Club Disney, an experimental educational environment for preschoolers being tested in Los Angeles.

And she has plenty to do to resuscitate the Disney Channel, which she insists will not look like Nickelodeon despite fears to the contrary among her former colleagues. “We need to invent a kind of programming on a dual level to bridge the communications gap between kids and parents,” she says. “Kids want desperately to have quiet moments with their parents, and television is one of those really sweet moments when they get to snuggle next to their parents in front of the electronic heart.” Just as animators seeped from the shadows to reinvent animation for Nick, Laybourne says the Hollywood community will respond to her call for a new genre of family entertainment. “We’ll throw out the challenge,” she says. “I’m not sure anyone has ever articulated it quite this way.”

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*

Landing Laybourne was a coup for disney, judging from the upheaval at Viacom that followed. Sumner Redstone, the impetuous 73-year-old chairman of the company, was particularly close to Laybourne. Her departure may have driven a deeper wedge between him and Frank Biondi Jr., the president and chief executive he fired the month after she resigned. Redstone blamed Biondi at least in part for letting Disney woo Laybourne away, although Biondi, now chairman and chief executive of MCA Inc., says Redstone tied his hands by refusing to let him offer her a higher salary. Twenty-four hours after she had agreed to stay, Laybourne changed her mind, won over by Disney’s triple-court press.

Both Eisner and Iger had separately tried to hire her more than once. After announcing the planned merger, they tried again as a team, with reinforcement from former superagent Michael Ovitz, who had recently joined the corporate world as Disney’s president. Iger negotiated around the clock to close a deal with Laybourne that is thought to be in the neighborhood of $3 million a year, plus options.

“Bob really brought her in,” Eisner says. “Michael and I called her, and were mainly cheerleaders.” (An article in The New Yorker about Laybourne’s appointment credited Ovitz with the coup, sending ripples of paranoia through ABC, which was waiting for signs that its new owner would be pulling all the strings. The piece failed to mention Iger, but rather described how the first call placed by Ovitz as Disney president was to Laybourne, whom he had met for the first time the year before, when he and his young son Eric sat behind the Nick chief at an NBA All-Star game.)

Disney’s reputation for heavy-handed management has led some Laybourne colleagues to predict a jarring transition. Eisner is a taskmaster and Disney is more meticulously managed than Viacom. Some of Laybourne’s friends worry that her creative and collaborative style might be crimped.

“She has spent 15 years being the anti-Disney,” says one longtime associate. “Now she is Disney. They expect results right away, but the way Gerry wins is step by step, slow and plodding like a teacher.”

Laybourne laughs at the notion that she now works at Disney, having taken very much to heart a directive by Redstone when he bought Viacom in 1987: “Sumner came in and said, ‘We want to be the Disney of the ‘90s,’ and people howled. Here I am in the ‘90s, at Disney.”

At Viacom, she operated with little interference--at first because of low expectations for Nickelodeon and later because her group consistently outperformed other cable channels, including its sibling rival, MTV, whose early success with irreverence was a model for Nick.

Nickelodeon’s spirit bubbled up from its troops, a young, energetic and insular group that Laybourne protected and imprinted. “She created this family atmosphere where everyone else was an outsider,” says Vanessa Coffey, Nickelodeon’s first head of animation and now an executive producer at Sony. “Gerry was our surrogate mom. When she gave you a job, she had high expectations but she let you do it. We all wanted to please her.” Cohesion also grew out of the unifying identity Laybourne created through decor. At Viacom’s New York headquarters, MTV’s floors are called “the dormitories,” messy and raw, strewn with rock posters, stereo equipment and tattooed Gen-Xers in black leather.

The Nick floors form a fantasy workshop and playground. Brightly colored angular and curvy walls of wood and corrugated aluminum separate work spaces. Oversized orange balls as big as grand pianos idle in the halls. A wall of green slate is scrawled with chalk graffiti. Laybourne designed her own desk to circle her like a serpent, its glass top covering cubbyholes filled with family memorabilia, jewelry-box style. “Space and architecture is one of the tools you have to manage by--to communicate your management philosophy,” she says. Nickelodeon’s strong identity, though, sometimes created tension within Viacom. Laybourne was known for trying to control all aspects of her operation to keep Nick’s image pure and was reluctant to parcel jobs out to other arms of Viacom to help contain costs.

“If you were connecting with Nick, they were great to deal with, but if their vision didn’t mesh with yours, they were very hardheaded,” Biondi recalls. “If you were talking geology, you’d say Gerry is a force of nature. The trick in managing her is not to stifle her, and that’s hard because she always wants to do a lot.”

She rearranged Nickelodeon with the force of a tornado, starting as a consultant at the network launch in 1979. After getting a master’s degree in elementary education at the University of Philadelphia, she formed an independent production studio and, with her husband, Kit, an independent filmmaker, was creating pilots for the network. The following year, Laybourne joined as a programming manager and was elevated to general manager in 1986. At the time, Nickelodeon was losing $10 million a year as a commercial-free channel with the lowest ratings in cable. It was the “spinach channel,” bitter tasting--but good for kids.

Guided by rigorous focus groups with children, Laybourne honed a philosophy for the network based on the mind-set that growing up is tough. But the network had little money for developing programs to help kids cope, so Laybourne bought cheap old shows and packaged them to look cool. She started accepting advertising and retooling the economics of production to make originals affordable. Game shows came first, with “Double Dare” debuting in 1986, shattering the myth that kids would only watch nimation. She produced the show with neighborhood kids in the basement of her New Jersey home.

Then came talk shows, then dramas such as “Clarissa Explains It All,” another TV first, giving girls a role model that even boys could tolerate. Laybourne, by then president, set up a studio in 1990 that kids could tour at Universal Studio’s theme park in Florida.

News came next, but perhaps the most seismic event was in 1991, when Laybourne convinced Biondi and Redstone to let her spend $40 million over three years to develop several animated series. Despite Viacom’s lack of experience in animation, the first three shows Laybourne green-lighted are still top-rated. “Rug-rats” beat out a Spielberg creation for an Emmy in its first year, and “The Ren & Stimpy Show” and “Doug” drew new audiences.

Laybourne’s passion endeared her to the equally passionate Redstone, who felt indebted to her for rescuing him when he bought the company in 1987. Viacom’s top management was balking at giving the new owner access to information about the company. Laybourne and Freston secretly met with Redstone, hoping to convince him that MTV and Nickelodeon were unmined gold, stalled by a lack of management support. “She was one of the first people to come to me eight years ago to say Nick was going nowhere,” Redstone says.

He wonders how she will adjust to Disney. “The environment is very different at Viacom,” he says. “In my company, Gerry could always walk into my office and express her frustration. She thrived in that gentle environment, and I don’t know if she will find that elsewhere.”

“Sumner is right,” Laybourne says, “the atmosphere was perfect for me there. But this is a different stage of my life. When I was building Nick, I was a schoolteacher who didn’t know anything about television. I come here having built a team that created a $4-billion asset.”

“So far, the biggest difference is people let me finish my sentences,” she says in jest, unlike the youthfully impatient group at MTV Networks.

*

Laybourne grew up in Martinsville, N.J., as Geraldine Bond, the middle daughter of a stockbroker and a mother she describes as “an arts terrorist.” Her mother wrote radio soap operas and once taught drama at the University of Wisconsin. Lively and civic-minded, she drove her children into the arts, whisking them to house tours on weekends, oil painting at age 5, even turning off TV shows before they ended and demanding they write a conclusion. Laybourne’s father channeled her diligence and cultivated her sense of business, teaching her about company balance sheets and putting her in charge of his brokerage office during the summers when she was 16 and 17.

After graduating from Vassar in 1969, Laybourne put her degree in architecture to use as a junior assistant. Her life changed, though, after running into Kit, whom she had met five years earlier when he was a senior at Wesleyan University. The second time around, he says, “We fell in love immediately and were married in six months.”

Within a year, the Laybournes had Emmy, who is now 25 and does improvisational theater in New York when she’s not working at the Comedy Central cable channel, and Sam, 21, a student at Wesleyan who is the lead singer in a rock band.

Laybourne says Kit unlocked her sense of humor, opening up a world of play she never experienced as a child. “He is one of the most open, free-spirited, creative people you will ever meet,” Laybourne says. “Everything became a game. At the grocery store, he would make the kids guess how much the groceries cost. Nickelodeon was a way for me to re-create my childhood."Kit, Gerry’s charming and articulate alter ego, admits it: “I’m an asset.”

So does Eisner. He says he and Gerry realized they shared a common ground at a Santa Barbara conference last year on family and television. But Kit, who sat with Laybourne and Eisner and his wife, Jane, clinched the Disney chief’s conviction to hire her: “That was the final moment when I said, ‘God, we have to hire her,’ ” Eisner says. “I was impressed with her choice in spouses. It reflects well on her judgment. They have a good relationship.”

The couple has had a bicoastal marriage since February, when Kit gave up life as a freelancer to become an executive at Tele-TV in Los Angeles, the video venture of the Baby Bell telephone companies. He says he and Gerry have met almost every weekend since, either in Telluride, Colo., their apartment on Central Park West in New York or in Los Angeles, where they are shopping for a house.

Early in their marriage, when the children were still young, the Laybournes’ circle of friends, mostly independent filmmakers without kids, congregated at their house, debating art, ideas and creativity into the night. “When the jug wine ran out at about 12:30 or 1, Gerry whipped off to the kitchen to bake a souffle; Grand Marnier was her best. We were all developing our aesthetic together and Gerry nurtured and protected it. She has always played that role,” her husband says.

A sense of community is still a part of their life. At their vacation house 45 minutes outside Telluride, the Laybournes built two oversized bunk beds in the living room, with curtains that can be drawn for privacy. (Their own bed is in another room, on rollers, railroad-style, so that they can sleep under the stars on the balcony at the end of the tracks.) Kit says weekend guests love the bunk beds: “There is something lewd about adults sleeping together in one room.” He says the early salons still inform Laybourne’s management style. As an animation producer, Kit worked with Nick on several series, including “Allegra’s Window,” and says, “When she listens in, she focuses, and if you can ask certain kinds of questions, people will open up.”

Her approach has disarmed her new boss at Capital Cities. “I have a couple trusted colleagues and she is one of them,” says Robert Iger. “And I don’t use those words lightly. It usually takes a long time to reach that level.” She gets respect because she gives it: “At a meeting, with issues that aren’t hers, she has a way of expressing opinions in a way that people can listen to,” he says. “She has an uncanny ability to focus on the most important issue. The bottom line is, she is great to have around.” *

some colleagues say Laybourne is disillusioned with her new job. The cancellations of the news and soap opera channels were disappointing. Close friends say she expected to have more authority over Lifetime and A&E;, rather than only board seats.

Still, she has made an impact, particularly at Lifetime, a women’s channel that some critics say is condescending to women. She revived an idea at the network, in which Disney holds a 50% stake, for a second channel aimed at young women, 18 to 34 years old. The idea had been tabled in November because of the shortage of space on cable. “All I did was get the board organized around an idea that is the future of Lifetime,” says Laybourne. “It needed a passionate advocate, and that’s what I can do for Lifetime.” In January, Lifetime will debut two hours of service, news and entertainment programming that could become its own network, once digital technology expands cable capacity during the next five years. Laybourne’s fingerprints can also be found on several other programming arrangements. The network won the bidding for the cable run of Disney’s prime-time hit “Ellen” and recently hired newswoman Linda Ellerbee to produce two one-hour segments with the presidential candidates. Ellerbee is a close friend of Laybourne’s; her Lucky Duck Productions launched Nickelodeon into news. Laybourne said she will also help the network move into original series production, which she says takes “bravery,” one of her favorite words. At the Disney Channel, Sweeney is hastening its conversion from a premium to a basic channel to broaden its reach, although Laybourne insists the network will always be commercial-free. And Laybourne and Sweeney have been traversing the country talking to parents and children in focus groups about the issues they face. Laybourne discovered the power of focus groups at Nickelodeon: Reacting to various advertisements, kids said they hated being told what to do and what to think about products, leading Nickelodeon to ban the word “fun” from program titles and promotions, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions. In part, by developing shows that families can watch together, Laybourne will be concocting an antidote to Nickelodeon, which helped drive families into separate rooms to watch their favorite shows. Distinguishing the Disney Channel is important at a time when children’s programming is becoming a magnet for studios because of the overseas opportunities and the success of Nickelodeon and the Fox Children’s Network, which together capture about half of the $1 billion spent by advertisers in the United States on children’s programming. In August, Nickelodeon averaged 40 of the 50 top-rated cable programs. And television options for children are mushrooming wildly, with the WB network retreating from edgier shows to embrace programs for the whole family. “The exciting thing for me is that Disney has this whole tradition of poignant dramas for families and fun animation,” she says. “There is a very big range of voices for the Disney Channel and we plan on using every dimension of the brand.”

Though various new channels are being reviewed, including a movie network based on Disney’s Miramax label, the one that perhaps captures Laybourne’s imagination most is an educational channel for children. At a conference for advertisers in May sponsored by the advocacy group Children Now, Laybourne said Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, had inspired her goal for the coming decade by championing the mandatory children’s programming rules and pressing advertisers for their support. Broadcasters have fiercely resisted the rules, complaining that they will lose money because kids don’t watch these shows and advertisers don’t support them. Cable channels cannot be used by broadcasters to meet the requirements, but they could provide an afterlife for those shows that do. But using an educational wrapping could be tricky, given the sensitivity of Washington and the public to the issue. Activist Peggy Charren, a big Laybourne backer and author of the Children’s Television Act of 1990, which required broadcasters to devote more air time for children’s programming, has this concern about Disney’s proposed educational channel: “I just hope Goofy isn’t the teacher. Disney has been so successful connecting its products with programming. I worry about the degree to which programming will be saturated by the world of Disney. Gerry will argue for separating that but I’m not sure she is going to win that one.” Laybourne would not elaborate on her plans, which are still unformed. But one of her mantras could apply. “To motivate me, all you have to say is ‘That can’t be done,’ ” she says. Her contrariness crept into her keynote speech the day she announced the launch of the channel in May: “I like the impossible,” she said. “It’s a realm I feel truly comfortable in.”


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