January 30, 2020
Hall of Fame

Geraldine Laybourne: Hall of Fame Tribute

An Appreciation by Anne Sweeney (as told to Paula Chin)

I first met Geraldine in 1981, when I applied for a job as her assistant. I had read about this new network called Nickelodeon, and someone who worked with Geraldine, who had recently been hired as program manager, told me I had to meet her. I had just gotten a degree from Harvard's Graduate School of Education and interned at Sesame Street, and at the time, the idea of a full TV channel for kids was just crazy. Geraldine had been a teacher and had started a media center for children because she was concerned about what her own kids were watching. She was very excited about the possibilities of programming for kids 12 hours a day.

We talked about this new universe called cable, and the interview seemed to go well. She asked me how fast I could type, and having absolutely no idea, I said that I could do 80 words a minute. As she walked me to the door, she told me the company health plan was terrible. Geraldine always had this wonderful sense of warmth, irreverence and fun.

As it turned out, I could only type eight words a minute, so Geraldine quickly found me a new spot as director of acquisitions. We'd screen children's programs and she would negotiate what we would buy. But it was clear from the start what Geraldine's real gift was: She actually listened to children and discovered what they really liked. Her programming approach made a point of talking to kids as equals, and that, combined with her drive and innovative spirit, is what made Nickelodeon such a phenomenal success.

I spent 12 incredibly happy years with Geraldine at Nickelodeon before she brought me with her to Disney, which presented a whole new set of challenges. Disney had just purchased ABC, and you had these two big companies with very different cultures trying to come together. Knowing Geraldine, it wasn't surprising that she was the first person to walk the halls and go into people's offices and introduce herself and make friends. She wasted no time creating her own team and started tackling the big issues, including the future of ABC's Saturday-morning children's TV schedule and where animation would fit in on the lineup.

She quickly reestablished herself as the person running the Disney Channel, Lifetime and A&E. Geraldine wanted to bring the magic she had developed at Nickelodeon to create a new model of kid-driven programming for the Disney Channel brand. Geraldine was always pushing boundaries and flexing new muscles. She tapped the most talented animators out there and created fresh new programming, including the enormously successful launch of One Saturday Morning, a block of animated and live-action series for children.

It's no surprise that Geraldine brought that same spirit of innovation and risk-taking to her work at Oxygen — as well as a sense of playfulness and fun. Geraldine is a true visionary, a driving force who has made so many contributions to the TV landscape.

Her devotion to the creative process is second to none, but just as important, for so many people, she has been the greatest mentor you could hope for. Whether you worked for her or not, she desperately wanted everyone around her to be successful in their careers — and in life. She always took the time and effort to forge relationships, counsel and guide people, and help put you on the right path.

Geraldine Laybourne is a groundbreaking television executive and entrepreneur, best known for building Nickelodeon from a fledgling network into an award-winning, global children's TV powerhouse in the 1980s and '90s. In 1996, she became president of Disney-ABC Cable Networks, where she oversaw the Disney Channel, A&E Television, Lifetime, the History Channel and E! Entertainment Television. In 1998, she partnered with Oprah Winfrey and Carsey-Werner Productions to create Oxygen Media, producing women's-themed programming for the Oxygen cable TV channel. She was ranked No. 1 among the 50 most influential women in entertainment by The Hollywood Reporter and named one of the 25 most influential people in America by Time magazine in 1996.

Anne Sweeney, formerly co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television Group, worked with Laybourne as senior vice president of program enterprises at Nickelodeon, where she oversaw the network's international expansion, and as president of the Disney Channel and executive vice president of Disney/ABC Channel Networks.

This tribute originally appeared in the 25th Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Geraldine Laybourne's induction.

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