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Kids' Tv--she Walks The Walk

While Others Just Talked, Geraldine Laybourne Built Nickelodeon Into the Biggest and Best Kids' Channel. Now She's Working for Disney/ABC, and Things Are Bound to Change Around the Mouse's House.

September 08, 1996|Sallie Hofmeister | 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.

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."

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.

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