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Will the Last Independent Network Standing…

When Oxygen Media head Geraldine Laybourne steps down later this year from the irreverent women’s network she founded and just sold to NBC Universal, the cable industry will lose one of its most outspoken champions for independent programming.

Beyond trying to launch a Web/TV brand ahead of its time, Gerry Laybourne is regarded within cable circles for lobbying, side by side with cable operators and her fellow independent programmers, against hot-button issues including must carry and a la carte measures that threatened to shut out independents, like hers, that lacked the leverage of retransmission consent or ownership by a major media conglomerate to gain carriage.

"Because I grew up in cable, it’s where I am going to start," Laybourne explained to CableWorld in 2005 about her solidarity with the cable industry.

Empathy for Oxygen’s distributors and their regulatory concerns also gave the former Nickelodeon executive a backstage pass to cable’s mostly male-occupied corridors of power. She’s the only programming executive to serve on the board of a cable operator, as she has done for Insight Communications, and the only programmer (and woman) member of cable’s elite Entrepreneur’s Club.

Single and an indie advocate no more, Oxygen’s not the only standalone network to surrender, as some cable observers put it, to the inevitable.

Its sale follows Court TV‘s sale last year to Turner, which plans to rebrand it on January 1 as truTV, and CSTV: College Sports Television‘s 2005 sale to CBS.

Crown Media, which owns Hallmark Channel and its sister movie network, hired former Court TV head Henry Schleiff a year ago to shop Hallmark’s TV channels to prospective buyers.

Schleiff, as CableFAX Daily reports, is lobbying the FCC for regulatory support and pitching baseball-style mandatory arbitration if carriage renewal talks aren’t concluded within a set time. His urgency: Hallmark’s carriage agreements with Comcast, Time Warner Cable and DirecTV expire in December.

It’s not only getting harder to find, but define, an independent network these days.

A stampede of standalone networks have been selling pieces of themselves — as Oxygen did, to investors including Time Warner — to distributors and/or media conglomerates in return for a cash infusion and (ideally) distribution bump:

GSN, the former Game Show Network, which is co-owned by Liberty Media (whose other holdings include Starz and Discovery) and Sony Pictures Entertainment.
SiTV, which sold a minority stake to Time Warner.
Sundance Channel, which is co-owned by NBC Universal, CBS and Robert Redford.
The Tennis Channel, another former poster child for independent networks, which earlier this year sold a minority stake to DirecTV in return for nearly doubling its carriage.
The Travel Channel, which left the Discovery Networks family earlier this year to become owned by Atlanta-based cable operator, Cox Communications.
TV Guide Network, which is part-owned by News Corp., which has extensive TV network holdings, and Gemstar-TV Guide.
TV One, which is part-owned by Comcast.

That leaves a handful of "independent" networks standing. Not counting international or ethnic programmers and league- or conference-owned sports networks, a partial list of unaffiliated indies would include:

TAC: The America Channel
AmericanLife TV
Bloomberg Television
Current TV
EWTN
GMC: Gospel Music Channel
HDNet & HDNet Movies
HSN
Hallmark Channel
Inspiration Networks
Outdoor Channel
Ovation
Retirement Living
The Sportsman Channel
Wealth TV

Independent programmers are also acquiring other indie nets — at least in one instance, earlier this year, when GMC acquired the assets of Black Family Channel, an African American-owned start-up formerly known as MBC — or giving up as linear brands and going online, as in the case of Lime.

With the odds stacked against them, it’s little wonder that scores of independent networks — including, most recently, Tube Music Network — are calling it quits, or waving a white flag to prospective buyers.

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