When the embryonic women's cable channel/Web network Oxygen posted a preliminary TV schedule online last fall, the blurb for Trackers--a teen girl-power show, sans "sugar and spice"--asked, "What's a girl to do once she's outgrown Nickelodeon?"
Replace "girl" with "woman," and you have the question to which Oxygen chairwoman and CEO and former Nickelodeon president Geraldine Laybourne is unveiling the answer. During 15 years at Nick, Laybourne made a tiny kids' channel into an omnipresent part of youths' lives; in 1998, after an unsatisfying two-year stint at Disney/ABC, she was ready to strike out on her own. So what's an accomplished TV exec to do? She doesn't just start a high-profile cable channel from scratch--with almost all original programming--when it's been years since a new basic-cable channel has become a hit. She doesn't just enter the risky field of new media. She doesn't just bet millions on the still notional idea of "convergence"--the trendy belief that television and online technologies will, somehow, on some machine, combine to form a superinformative, superprofitable supermedium. She does all of the above, taking on well-established women's media brands to boot.
The idea, coming from most entrepreneurs, would be laughed off a venture capitalist's private plane. Time Warner, TIME's parent company, last year scrapped plans to launch a women's information cable network, concluding that it would not be profitable. But Laybourne was able to attract investments from the likes of Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft), Bernard Arnault (chairman of the luxury-goods company LVMH) and America Online (which plans to merge with Time Warner), building a programming fund of more than $400 million. She has also drawn a raft of veteran producers and, as business partners, the Hollywood production team of Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach (creators of The Cosby Show, Roseanne and That '70s Show), which are programming the network; and--hallelujah!--Oprah Winfrey, who will contribute two shows (and, in 2002, reruns of her talk show). She even snared Candice Bergen to act as host of a nighttime talk show, Exhale. The return on these investments and efforts will rest largely on Laybourne's vision of how the Internet will change media and of what 21st century women want--and aren't getting--from TV.
"I had a workman here the other day," Laybourne says at her office in Oxygen's loftlike downtown Manhattan headquarters (very new-media-start-up, very exposed-pipes-and-brick). "He said, 'Hmmm. Network for women. What're you going to do, fashion?'" Not exactly. When the channel launches on Feb. 2 (the date, 02/02, plays off the chemical symbol for oxygen), it will offer a mix of talk shows, comedy and women-oriented finance, sports and consumer shows, from a positive, sister-solidarity perspective. What "fashion" there is comes in forms like a comic riff on the empowering influence of a little black cocktail dress.