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Laybourne, Geraldine - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Geraldine Laybourne

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Media Executive


Geraldine Laybourne is one of the most prominent women in cable television. She took the Nickelodeon television network from last place to first in the 1980s, and she did it through an unconventional leadership style. As a result of her success, she became vice chairman of Nickelodeon’s parent company, MTV Networks. Then in early 1996, this dynamic chief executive moved to an even bigger playing field when she was named president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks. In May of 1998, Laybourne unexpectedly left her position with Disney/ABC to form her own media company with ABC, Inc.

Personal Life

Geraldine Bond Laybourne was born May 19, 1947 in Plainfield, New Jersey. She grew up in Martinsville, New Jersey where her father was a businessman and her mother was a radio soap opera actress. Laybourne studied art history at Vassar College in New York, where she earned her BA degree in 1969. In 1970, she married Kit Laybourne, with whom she had two children, Emily and Sam. At the time Laybourne met Kit, he was teaching kids electronic media by letting them make their own television shows, movies, and videos. She was fascinated by his work and shared his interest in children, an interest that is reflected throughout her career.

Laybourne enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her M.S. in elementary education in 1971. While earning her master’s degree, she worked as an administrator at an architectural firm, but after graduation she became a high school teacher at Concord Academy, a prep school in Concord, Massachusetts. In 1973, after teaching at Concord for a year, she became festival coordinator for the American Film Festival from 1974 to 1976. Also in 1974, she helped found the Media Center for Children in New York City, where she worked until 1977. From 1978 to 1980, she was a partner in the Early Bird Specials Company, and from there she moved to the newly formed Nickelodeon network, which had a target audience of children and young adults.

Career Details

Initially hired as a program manager at Nickelodeon in 1980, Laybourne quickly worked through the ranks in a variety of scheduling and programming jobs. By 1986, she was senior vice president and general manager for Nick at Nite, a subsidiary network specializing in old, baby-boom era television shows. She was promoted to executive vice president and general manager position in 1987, and then promoted to president of Nickelodeon in 1989.

Laybourne made Nickelodeon one of the most loved and most watched cable television channels. When she started working for Nickelodeon, there were only 12 employees and when she left the company, there were over 1,000 employees. Laybourne’s management style can be summed up in three words: make it fun! As Time magazine pointed out in a profile of her, “It may seem obvious that children’s programming should be both fun and educational, but when she took over at Nickelodeon, this was by no means a self-evident principle.” Most children’s programming in the 1970s was either strictly “educational” or purely entertainment. It was Laybourne’s gift to be able to steer between the two.

When asked by Sales & Marketing Management magazine to describe Nickelodeon, Laybourne called it the “naughty aunt or uncle who’s the most fun to have in a family, or the substitute teacher who turned the school on its ear.” These words also describe Laybourne, who is anything but conventional in her business style. Her character as a manager is reflected by the physical environment she created at Nickelodeon’s corporate headquarters in New York City, where she turned four stories of the building into a fun house. Decorated in bright colors with walls that leaned in odd directions, Nickelodeon had a conference room with rounded corners and oddly shaped windows. At strategy sessions, Laybourne would hand out Gak, a substance similar to Play-Doh—hardly what one would expect to find in the headquarters of a business that had $330 million in revenues the year before.

In a world where egos battle it out everyday, Laybourne rejects the idea of a hierarchical corporate structure. The chief executive abandoned her huge office and instead of having the largest desk, she had the smallest one at Nickelodeon. By using individualized instruction and focusing on her employees’ strengths rather than their weaknesses, Laybourne was able to assemble a remarkably creative staff. Laybourne has expressed that she feels it is important to “see what’s good in people and make sure that 80 percent of their time is spent doing (those) things.” At the same time, she has described herself as having extremely high expectations for Nickelodeon and its employees. Her combination of management characteristics earned her the nickname of “the Velvet Hammer” at Nickelodeon. “There is no sloppiness at Nickelodeon,” she said. “It’s playful . . . but the people here are very driven, and they really want to do well.”

Laybourne’s own success and drive was rewarded in 1992, when Nickelodeon’s parent company, MTV Networks, made her its vice chair. However, she was never given a voting spot on the company’s board, and she soon felt that her career had become limited.

Late in 1995, Disney chief Michael Eisner made headlines for what Fortune magazine called a “coup” in hiring Laybourne away from Nickelodeon. In January of 1996, she assumed the job of vice president of Disney/ABC for cable operations, and by late 1997, she was named president.

At Disney/ABC Cable Network, Laybourne was to oversee, the Disney Channel and the ABC interests in Lifetime, History Channel, A&E Network, and E! Entertainment. She also planned an all-news channel. Laybourne’s success at Disney/ABC included revamping ABC’s Saturday morning children’s shows, and improving the Disney and Lifetime channels, but she had many plans that were never executed. Laybourne did not have as much freedom as she did at Nickelodeon to make decisions and get things done. The corporate structure was very different; any change was a very slow process, and Laybourne was perhaps a bit too distant from the creative process. Overseeing all those channels meant going to many meetings and not actually accomplishing anything. While Laybourne waited to see some of her plans materialize, other networks produced new programs, leaving Disney behind. Disney decided to abandon her early ideas for a cable news channel and an educational channel, claiming that they were too costly. Disney had not been evolving along with the changes taking place in the expanding broadcasting scene. Laybourne, perhaps, was brought in to fix the network. She improved some things, but overall, she was not content and decided to move on.

In May of 1998, Laybourne left her position with Disney to start her own company. Her new company will provide programming for the cable, network television, and the Internet. She is interested in creating interactive programs for both the television and the Internet. The new company will also focus on Laybourne’s specialty, women’s and children’s programming.

Social and Economic Impact

Geraldine Laybourne has made tremendous changes in programming for children. From the beginning, her success has been grounded in the fact that she is genuinely interested in children. In a 1997 speech she commented, “I didn’t go into TV to have a career or build a business, I went into TV because I thought it was a disgrace for kids.” Laybourne has also said that she can learn all she needs to learn about a person by asking them what they were like as kids. It is likely that in any arena, she will apply the idea of appealing to the child in every person. After all, no child has ever been an adult; but all adults were once children.

Chronology: Geraldine Laybourne

1947: Born.

1974: Founded Media Center for Children.

1980: Hired as program manager for Nickelodeon.

1985: Became director of acquisitions and programming executive, Nickelodeon.

1989: Named president of Nickelodeon.

1992: Became vice-chair of MTV Networks.

1995: Accepted presidency at Disney/ABC Network Cable.

1998: Left Disney/ABC to form own media company.

Geraldine Laybourne’s brand of corporate power was a shining example of how a corporation can change in order to create win-win situations. In a world that is often dominated by male executives, Laybourne is a dominant figure. “Gerry makes people think in a different way,” said one female Disney executive. One way Laybourne has made people think differently is to surround them with the unconventional. Her focus on fun included everything from brightly colored walls to staff meetings that resembled a glorified show-and-tell. Obviously, whatever Laybourne has done, worked. She has worked for mega-corporations, made many changes in children’s television, and instituted progressive management techniques, thus setting a new standard for the corporate “think-tanks” of the United States.

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