Gerry Laybourne’s $400 Million Gamble: Nickelodeon Queen Joins With Oprah for Women’s Cable-Web Venture

It’s here. A fledgling women’s media empire is in the process of moving into 40,000 square feet of retrofitted office space (and digital TV studios) at 448 West 16th Street. Nabisco had a factory on this spot in the old days. In the next century, it may prove to be ground zero for the synergistic possibilities of TV and the Internet, as well as a mothership for a pragmatic brand of feminism.

Oprah Winfrey has already signed up for duty. Candice Bergen is ready to go. Deborah Tannen is aboard. Meryl Streep is on her way. Welcome to Oxygen.

“You can just feel the estrogen in the air,” said a female Internet entrepreneur who has been talking with executives of Oxygen Media Inc. about a deal. “It’s just so many women working there–it’s like being in that Star Trek episode.”

Queen of this multimedia castle in Chelsea is Geraldine Laybourne, 52, the 20th most powerful woman, according to Fortune magazine. Ms. Laybourne made Nickelodeon what it is. After a stint at the man’s world of ABC, where she seemed to lose her way for a while, she’s back in charge, with money to play with from America Online Inc. and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Ventures Inc.

Ms. Laybourne has put together $400 million for programming–part of which will come from the minds of Ms. Winfrey (the 26th most powerful woman, says Fortune ) and the production team of Carsey-Werner-Mandabach ( Roseanne , Cybill )–and her network already employs 250 people.

Ms. Laybourne refers to her new undertaking as something that heralds nothing less than a new age for women. “Over the last 100 years, women completely redefined themselves,” she said in a speech available via the Oxygen Web site. “And in a world where women had to operate under men’s terms. Imagine what we could do if it were our natural habitat.”

Caryn Mandabach, in an on-line chat, tried to explain the Oxygen ethos: “It’s about not being afraid to be who you want to be. It’s about being as fun-loving and courageous and rowdy and bold as you want to be.”

In a public on-line chat with her Oxygen partner, Ms. Winfrey addressed Ms. Laybourne directly: “You said you wanted to create a network for women that was about intent and service. I got chills.”

Some on Wall Street are getting chills thinking about the possible profits, in a time when anything with a dot-com attached to it means instant money. “The important point here is to recognize that Gerry is an extraordinary programming executive, Marcy Carsey has some of the most extraordinary talent as a producer, and Oprah Winfrey is an entity to herself,” said Chris Dixon, media analyst for Paine Webber. “There is every indication that this can be a clearly viable platform.”

AT&T-Media One and TCI have signed up to carry Oxygen on their cable systems, which will give it a reach of roughly 10 million households when it makes its TV debut on Feb. 2, 2000. In New York, the main cable carrier, Time Warner, has only recently shelved plans for a women’s cable network of its own and has not yet made room on its dial for Oxygen.

The Oxygen Web site, already up and running, is being redesigned for an Oct. 25 relaunch. So far, its content does not differ all that much from what’s in Marie Claire or Glamour . It’s useful stuff, with a subtext of “You go, girl.”

In an Oct. 6 New York Times Op-Ed article about being a good boss, Ms. Laybourne explained how she has created that natural habitat since her days running Nickelodeon: “Once I was made president of the network, I got a big corner office. But we all agreed we needed to be connected in this adventure, and I put my desk in the open, behind the receptionist. At one point, one of my employees pointed out that there were too many meetings going on. We were taking ourselves too seriously. So we instituted recess. Every day at 3 p.m., everyone had to be out mingling in the hallways. We had buckets of plastic goop that people could play with in meetings.”

She also wrote about how she listens to everyone: “I also had the notion that ideas could come from anyone, no matter what their job description. The first show we created– Double Dare –was invented by our receptionist and two on-air promotion producers.”

When the Times piece hit, executives who have worked with Ms. Laybourne started calling each other for a laugh, saying that their old boss had begun to believe her own press, of which there has been plenty, and all of it glowing. But what’s not to like? With primarily a teaching background, Ms. Laybourne, a Vassar graduate, daughter of a stockbroker and radio soap star and mother of two, pitched a show to the struggling Nickelodeon network with her husband, Kit Laybourne–Oxygen’s creative director–about children’s dreams. It was picked up, and Ms. Laybourne eventually took the network over and made it the No. 1-rated cable channel.

Still, her comments in The Times about her own management techniques drew chuckles from old colleagues. “Everyone who has been there, I’m sure, was sitting there smiling, because you think to yourself, ‘This is the fairy tale version,'” said an executive who worked with Ms. Laybourne. “I read the article and I thought to myself, you know, this is George Orwell, this is like a pen name. The recess thing was funny. It was like, do people really want it? Yeah, people were hiding in their offices. It lasted a week, and it was over. I’ve always believed she is well intentioned, but she’s essentially an icebox.”

Said one of Ms. Laybourne’s former subordinates, “Gerry put her office out in the open. Great concept, you know? A few months into the reality, she moved her office into the conference room. But it’s like she’s a rock star, she just gets this enormous amount of attention.”

Among the big Oxygen hires are Roni Selig, who helped develop The View for ABC and served as executive producer for The Rosie O’Donnell Show ; Linda Corradina, formerly executive producer of MTV’s House of Style ; and Cheryl Mills, the White House’s deputy counsel who defended President Clinton during last winter’s impeachment hearings–she’ll be covering public policy as well as the legal and political beats for the network.

In the mornings, there will be a yoga show called Inhale . In the afternoon, there will be a financial show, Ka-ching , for women who are novices in the stock market. At night, Candice Bergen will host an interview show, Exhale .

The evenings will offer a comedy block, featuring a sketch show–which will include Ms. Laybourne’s daughter, Emmy, 27, as a cast member–and a collection of animated shorts called X-Chromosome . Former David Letterman producer Robert Morton is helping recruit talent and work up ideas.

A few executives have already left Oxygen, feeling that the shows now in preproduction won’t live up to the hype. “The picks are predictable,” said one. “First of all, is there a need for a women’s channel like this? I’m not so sure there is. Would I stop everything to watch Candice Bergen or Oprah? I wouldn’t.”

But women working there said they can indeed produce shows that wouldn’t fly elsewhere. Prudence Fenton, who ran Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and did the remarkable animation for Peter Gabriel’s “Steam” and “Big Time” music videos, is creating an animated show for Oxygen about a fat woman who is completely confident despite her weight.

“Oxygen really wants to make it a place for women and also give women the opportunity to express themselves in a way that’s really not possible in network television,” said Ms. Fenton. “For instance, Lifetime doesn’t seem willing to take any kind of risk unless the man is the bad guy, and he rapes you and takes all your money.”

Likewise, Theresa Duncan, who’s producing shorts that use animation to illustrate women’s fashion stories, said she sees it as a chance to offer up something a little bit different than she sees elsewhere. “Think about Sex and the City . It’s about husband-hunting single girls loose in the city,” she said. “They’re supposedly liberated, but it gives me the creeps that they’re considered this new type of feminist. Oxygen is giving me the opportunity to show that it is not my experience of the world and men, it’s not what I’m after in life.”

Wednesday, Oct. 20

For strong female characters tonight, catch The Powerpuff Girls . [Cartoon Network, 22, 8 P.M.]

Thursday, Oct. 21

Wasteland : Will Dawnie, 26, ever lose her virginity? Not till sweeps, not till sweeps. [WABC, 7, 9 P.M.]

Friday, Oct. 22

Alan Ball should be living the good life right about now.

The first movie he wrote, American Beauty , is being hailed as a certain Oscar winner and has won rave reviews. But Mr. Ball has not been able to savor his success. His other project, the new ABC sitcom Oh Grow Up –about three male roommates living in Brooklyn (one gay, two straight)–is getting slammed. Entertainment Weekly ‘s bottom line on the show: “Suggested alternate title: Oh Shut Up .” The Los Angeles Times ‘ take: “This is one show that should take its title more seriously.”

Meanwhile, the sitcom’s not doing so great in the ratings department, either. On Wednesday, Oct. 13, it came in third place, with about 8 million households, behind West Wing , with more than 10 million, and the CBS Wednesday movie, Lethal Vows , starring John Ritter, with more than 9 million.

All this has left Mr. Ball–who has written for Cybill and Grace Under Fire –a bit stressed when it comes to dealing with his new bosses at ABC. “It’s just–you don’t know!” he said. “The paranoid fantasies in my mind take over that there’s some unseen person over there who really doesn’t like the show, which is a paranoid rant.”

Certainly, Mr. Ball said, he has gotten his share of “notes” from network programmers. “We get a lot of notes: The jokes are too harsh, the characters are too mean to each other,” he said. “But they’ve been really on board and really helpful on the show and, hopefully, they’ll stick with it.”

Mr. Ball said he’s confused by all this since he likes his sitcom as much as his movie.

He should find out whether his show will make it or not within the next couple of weeks, when the network has to say whether it wants to picks up nine more episodes.

Catch some of Mr. Ball’s early work late night, tonight, on Grace Under Fire , when Grace becomes wary of her sister’s assistance. [WNYW, 5, 2:30 A.M.]

Saturday, Oct. 23

The Philadelphia Story , with Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. What more do you need? [WNET, 13, 9 P.M.]

Sunday, Oct. 24

The CBS movie, The Soul Collector , should be a pretty good bet during commercials if you’re watching the World Series on Channel 4. It’s about a wayward guide to the afterlife who is stuck in actual human form for about a month, so he goes and hangs out with a rancher, played by Melissa Gilbert, and her family. [WCBS, 2, 9 P.M.]

Monday, Oct. 25

Urkel watch: Tonight on Grown-Ups , Jaleel White’s character gets a promotion. [UPN, 9, 9 P.M.]

Tuesday, Oct. 26

Dean Ward is a film editor for the Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn . That’s just his day job. He also produced a documentary about the Friars Club, using a bunch of bootlegged footage as well as fresh interviews with the old comics. It airs tonight on Cinemax and is called Let Me In, I Hear Laughter: A Salute to the Friars . Mr. Ward, 29, said he’s always been fascinated by the Friars. “I guess I was sort of born too late,” he said. [Cinemax, 33, 7 P.M.]

Home Movies With Peter Bogdanovich

Gary Cooper was the archetypal American long before either John Wayne or James Stewart moved into that spot, but he died relatively young 40 years ago, and the passionate fervor with which he was adored has been forgotten. His good looks combined with a little-boy innocence were like catnip for women: The word is that of all Hollywood players, Cooper had the highest score. His acting style was imitable but not emulative. Orson Welles told me he’d stood not more than three feet away from Coop while a close-up of the actor was being made. When he later saw the dailies, Welles was astonished by the subtle play of expression the camera had caught. “I swear I could see none of that from three feet away!” This was Cooper’s mystery, and it made him a born picture star.

The year after Cooper won the Oscar and the New York Film Critics Award for best actor in Howard Hawks’ memorable World War I biographic drama, Sergeant York , he appeared in as different a Hawks picture as could be: a wacky screwball comedy in which Cooper was equally good, 1942’s delightful Ball of Fire [Friday, Oct. 22, American Movie Classics, 54, 1:30 p.m.; also on videocassette.] His co-star, at her brazen best, was Barbara Stanwyck (Oscar-nominated for it), with whom he had appeared the year before in Frank Capra’s heavyweight Meet John Doe .

The Ball of Fire script developed from a Thomas Monroe and Billy Wilder story (also Oscar-nominated) that Wilder and Charles Brackett fashioned into an outline they sold to Samuel Goldwyn. The plot concerned a group of scholars cloistered together working on an encyclopedia, when one of them gets involved with a nightclub singer-gangster’s moll. Goldwyn sent the outline to Hawks, who agreed to direct, saying he saw it as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs . Indeed, Hawks treats the piece somewhat like a fable, and certainly this is the most leisurely and sentimental of Hawks’ comedies. When I first saw Ball of Fire , I had just been looking at the director’s other major comedies ( Twentieth Century , Bringing Up Baby , His Girl Friday ) and noted in my movie-card file: “Slightly restrained, a bit too ‘tasteful,’ Goldwyn-produced Hawks comedy about a scholarly encyclopedia-writer’s pursuit of the meanings of slang, which leads him into romance and underworld intrigue with a boogie-woogie singer. Cooper, Stanwyck and the rest of the cast fall in easily with Hawks’ style, but the picture doesn’t have the darkly frenetic quality of his other comedies, and thus is not as effective or funny.”

Yes, but–having realized that the number of even semi-terrific comedies with stars and directors of this caliber is finite– Ball of Fire now seems to me more precious. Also, the relatively relaxed pace of Ball of Fire is connected to Cooper’s delivery, which could never have the speed of Hawks’ other comedy stars, Cary Grant or John Barrymore. What’s lost has been compensated for by other virtues: The high-voltage chemistry between Cooper and Stanwyck; an international group of charming, superb character-actors including S.Z. (Cuddles) Sakall, Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, Richard Haydn and Leonid Kinsky; nice tough-gangster support from Dana Andrews and Dan Duryea an energetic appearance by drummer Gene Krupa; striking black-and-white photography, with extremely effective deep-focus groupings, done by the legendary Gregg Toland. Also, Ball of Fire is Gary Cooper’s best comedy.