Cable guys’ club

Laybourne exits ABC, creating femme biz vacuum

NEW YORK — Geraldine Laybourne, president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks, will leave her post to form a media company, with ABC Inc. as its first investor.

With Laybourne stepping down from Disney/ABC, and USA Networks chairwoman Kay Koplovitz leaving her post, the two most powerful women in the cable business will depart their corporate jobs within weeks of each other. Lucie Salhany, another of the highest-ranking women in the TV business, left her post as president of UPN in mid-1997.

“And then there were none,” Koplovitz said.

Laybourne said her departure to start her own company was purely her idea and the split with Disney/ABC was amicable.

“The opportunity is now to get in on the ground floor,” said Laybourne, whose as yet unnamed company will concentrate on combining Internet and television programming for women and children.

“There are not very many strong Internet brands. I feel like it’s the late ’70s or the early ’80s, when we invented cable. Timing is everything and the timing is now. I’ve proven myself, and it’s time for me to do something on my own.”

Laybourne’s move surprised many industry observers, however. Several said Disney/ABC’s failure to greenlight projects that Laybourne spearheaded, such as the proposed ABZ children’s cable network, influenced Laybourne to exit the company. ABC also decided to abandon plans to launch a 24-hour cable news channel.

“None of those things have come to fruition,” Koplovitz said. “It must have disappointed her.”

Laybourne said her departure has nothing to do with these projects not going forward.

“There were good business reasons why we shouldn’t have done ABZ and the 24-hour news,” Laybourne said. “There were too many distribution issues out there.”

Koplovitz said she thought Laybourne likely left her Disney/ABC job because its corporate nature kept her from having direct conact with TV viewers.

“She likes to work directly with the consumer and I think she missed that in her role at ABC. You’re a step or two removed from it when you run a corporate division.”

Supervised cable

In her position as head of ABC/Disney Cable Networks, Laybourne oversaw the company’s cable interests except for ESPN. Her responsibilities included the Disney Channel, Disney’s interests in Lifetime and A&E and ABC’s kids lineup Saturday morning, where she is credited with delivering ABC huge gains over Fox, which had dominated for several years.

Several executives inside these companies said Laybourne may have been unhappy because her job was never well-defined.

“She’s leaving like Ovitz left,” said one inside source. “There was no job.”

But Laybourne only had positive things to say about her tenure at Disney/ABC.

“We have an amicable arrangement,” Laybourne said. “Disney is investing in my company. They are very supportive. I’m setting up a temporary office at ABC, and I look forward to working with them.”

Robert Iger, president of ABC, said in a statement, “Gerry has a passion to create quality programming and has been a great innovator in our business. We are sorry to see her leave our ranks but know she will be immensely successful in creating programming that respects her audience and enhances the medium.”

Built Nickelodeon

Laybourne joined Disney/ABC in February 1996. She built her reputation by building Nickelodeon into a respected and profitable kids cable network. Laybourne had been president of Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite since May 1989 and vice chairwoman of MTV Networks since February 1993. When she left MTV Networks to join Disney, it was considered a blow to the Viacom division.

Before joining Nickelodeon in 1980, Laybourne was a teacher.

Laybourne declined to reveal the size of ABC’s investment in her company other than to characterize it as a minority investment. She said she plans to announce additional investors soon. A year from now, she expects to have 100 employees.

Laybourne said there is a huge opportunity to develop Internet products for kids because while there are only about 4 million kids on the Web today, it’s estimated that 20 million will use the medium by 2002.