Gerry Laybourne’s latest young-female-targeted creation dares to go younger than Oxygen—or even Nickelodeon, where she cut her teeth in cable TV programming. As I sit in her office on the top floor of New York’s foodie paradise at Chelsea Market, she reaches back from her conference table to pluck a booklet from a pile of papers on her desk. The words "Ellie Likes Boys" catch my eye as Laybourne starts flipping through the pages. "My hobby has been making these shutter-fly books with my digital camera," she says as she zips through her handmade kids’ book featuring photos of her husband, veteran TV producer and animator Kit Laybourne, goofing around with their 18-month-old granddaughter. "I write these little stories, and Ellie now has about a dozen of these that I sent her." The image of Laybourne as a doting grandmother—sneaking scissors onto planes so she can make scrapbooks and collages for Ellie during long flights—may not jibe with that of the tough-talking Oxygen chairman and CEO who frequents Capitol Hill to lobby against cable a la carte provisions. Or with the plugged-in arbiter of cool who’s defied the critics, a dot-com meltdown and the odds of seeing her start-up cable network for young women turn 5 this month. Oxygen has gone through its share of ups and downs since its launch on Feb. 2, 2000—smack in the middle of dot-com fever. Originally targeted as an independent "telefusion" (TV plus online) brand for women 18 to 49, Laybourne subsequently had to retool her strategy, which led her to lay off all but eight of her 250 online staffers (about 10% of her workforce) in December 2000 and scrap original Web content. It’s no small irony, now that Oxygen at 5 is no longer a convergence play, that other television networks are embracing Laybourne’s vision of a media brand that plays across several platforms. Even rival women’s programmer Lifetime started dipping its toe into original online content this year. But having seen the network reach both profitability (2004 was Oxygen’s first year in the black) and distribution targets (it’s now in 54 million homes) ahead of her business plan’s schedule, Laybourne is ready to go back to the future, in a sense, and revisit her dream of converged media for women. Convergence—Take 2 Five years on, though, Laybourne’s dream of convergence has changed somewhat. Taking Oxygen’s brand to the video-on-demand realm has taken precedence over developing content for the Web. The lessons learned from Oxygen’s first attempt at convergence five years ago is helping the network navigate the VOD waters. "Fortunately we’ve got quite a bit of content that we still own from when we were an Internet company that’s applicable in a video-on-demand world," Laybourne says, pointing to Oxygen’s Moms Online portal that features a series of animations that gives tips to mothers. "We’ve got new mothers. We’ve got women who are single and thrilled about it. So how do we superserve all these different women? It’s going to be through new kinds of video-on-demand product." Oxygen’s strategy five years ago was to match the programming on television with compatible Internet programming, says Oxygen president and COO Lisa Gersh Hall. "We had online brands that matched the titles of shows, but it was very difficult because we really were trying to drive [viewers] from the Internet to television—[they’re] very different platforms." Though Hall is deep in discussions about how to "Oxygenate" her distributors’ nonlinear platforms, she insists Oxygen executives always will give great care to their linear channel. "But there’s also a place where people will watch television on demand, which I like to think of as `video on demand’ but not limited to that [VOD] platform," she says, referring to everything from wireless phones to DVRs. "It’s video that’s accessible when you want it on a variety of different platforms." Growing Pains and Growing Up Despite the revamped business strategy, Hall has secured carriage commitments from almost every major MSO. DBS distributor EchoStar is still a holdout, even though it acknowledges that Oxygen is its subscribers’ most-requested network. Hall’s deals give Oxygen space on the coveted expanded basic tier, a feat that she credits to Laybourne’s reputation. "As an independent that was founded by someone in the cable industry who was so respected for building brands, cable operators were willing to make a bet that the original programming that we’d develop would be different enough and important enough to viewers that it was worth the investment of their very valuable beachfront real estate on expanded basic carriage," Hall says. Insight president and CEO Michael Willner also credits "eternal optimist" Laybourne with defying the odds. "She accomplishes so much by the simple belief that nothing is impossible," says Willner. "That’s the underlying reason why Oxygen succeeded without the help of mega-media ownership." Oxygen’s five-year rollercoaster ride hasn’t hurt the network’s growth, Laybourne says. "We continue to [double] our advertising base every year," she says. "We went from 8 million [at launch] to 54 million homes, growing at about almost 10 million a year. And the increases in our ratings from 2002 to 2005 are up 374% [in prime time]…and we’re in the vicinity of Bravo, E! and VH1. Right now, in the first quarter, we’re averaging a 0.4 prime-time rating, which is really respectable." Oh! You Don’t Really Like Sports… Five years ago Oxygen launched with noisy live shows, edgy animation such as Avenue Amy and Hey Monie, informational shows, documentaries and women’s sports. None of those shows clicked with the intended audience and have since been replaced with new programming. "I remember the first focus group I went to," says Debby Beece, president of programming for Oxygen. "The women there said, `Oh, I love the idea of this network and all these service shows and women talking about issues, and all these documentaries and sports—oh, I love sports for women—and this is all just so great.’ But they really don’t watch any of those. I think they were just trying to make us feel good because they could tell we were so earnest and so eager to do something of value and serve women who’d been underserved." When backers including Paul Allen and Oprah Winfrey reportedly grew frustrated with Oxygen’s inability to lure a loyal audience, the net hired "I Want My MTV!" creator Dale Pon in late 2002 to come up with a new tag line and on-air identity. The branding guru’s "Oh!" campaign featuring Madonna and other celebrities created buzz for Oxygen’s revamped programming lineup, which skews toward comedy—a move reinforced last fall by a study on women and humor that Oxygen commissioned from Roper. Its comic A-team now includes original series Girls Behaving Badly and Good Girls Don’t, the British series Absolutely Fabulous and Nighty Night, plus reruns of the single-named TV series Roseanne, Ellen and Cybill. More original comedy series are coming this year, including Mr. Romance (premiering March 14), a reality show send-up starring Fabio and Fred Willard during which men compete to grace the covers of Harlequin romance novels. A dose of frank-but-funny sex chat is anchored by Talk Sex (starring Canadian granny-turned-David Letterman fave Sue Johanson), Naked Josh and Show Me Yours. Original reality fare includes Snapped, Nice Package and Drastic Plastic Surgery. The Ellen DeGeneres Show and the kick-off-your-heels Oprah After the Show, which Winfrey tapes exclusively for Oxygen, continue to be big hits. Oxygen also takes women to the movies with an original film per quarter; next up is Confessions of a Sociopathic Social Climber (March 12) starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. The network also recently acquired a package of films from Warner Bros. that includes titles such as Two Weeks Notice. Oxygen’s sassier, sharper on-air mix has been striking a chord with viewers, advertisers and cable operator executives such as Pam Euler Halling, SVP of marketing and programming for Insight, who says: "Oxygen has a formula for programming that is unique, fresh, fun and very different from any other network." CEO Behaving Badly Although tough-minded, professional and laser-focused on Oxygen, Gerry Laybourne confesses to being an inveterate goofball—a reputation that follows her around the industry. Insight president and CEO Michael Willner calls her a grown-up version of Little Orphan Annie. "I am a prankster," Laybourne says. "I have pushed more faces into mashed potatoes than I care to admit." She encourages that mix of fun, moxie and savvy at work, and did so even during the darkest days of Oxygen’s growing pains. What other CEO would dream up and play a character named "Ethel Ann" to make it easier for employees to ask lump-in-the-throat questions such as "Are you really going to make it to payroll?" at companywide town hall meetings? Laybourne credits her family with nurturing her playfulness. Kit, her husband of 35 years, is a veteran producer who teaches animation at The New School in New York. Kids Emily and Sam live on the West Coast. Besides being Ellie’s mom, Emily is a graduate student at UCLA, as well as a writer and comedian. Sam, an actor, has a band called Photo Tokyo which his mom describes as a "back-to-the-future, free-love group." In Search of a Breakout Hit Laybourne hates to discuss what’s coming to Oxygen’s prime-time lineup, citing "competitive reasons." After talking up Oxygen’s original film Nadine in Dateland (starring Janeane Garofalo), slated for this spring, she says: "We just signed a really famous woman director who has at least one ‘A’ initial for Banshee. But we haven’t announced details on this one yet, so never mind." One project she is eager to discuss is the upcoming reality series Making It Big (tentatively starting in May), featuring advertising legend Linda Kaplan Thaler. "It’s our version of helping people get breaks in their industries," says Laybourne. "It’s the anti-Apprentice—instead of the brutality of that show, this is more encouraging and funny." Oxygen’s development slate includes 10 Things You Don’t Know…, a biography show; Feminine Mystique, a sitcom from Joe Schmo production company Stone Stanley Entertainment (meaning it has nothing to do with Betty Friedan’s feminist tome); and Campus Ladies, an improvisational comedy series from Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Cheryl Hines. (Laybourne says Campus Ladies "tested very well.") The creator-driven comedy Illeana-Rama, starring actress Illeana Douglas as herself—well, as a version of herself who works in a Hollywood grocery store frequented by celebs—is also in development. Oxygen at a Glance Location: New York, N.Y. Launch Date: Feb. 2, 2000, as a TV network following its May 19, 1999, debut as a website. Subscribers: More than 54 million (as of Dec. 31, 2004) Management team: Geraldine Laybourne, chairman and CEO; Lisa Gersh Hall, president and COO; Debby Beece, president, programming; Geoffrey Darby, president, production; Mary Murano, SVP, affiliate sales. Ownership: Privately held; investors include Laybourne, Oprah Winfrey and Paul Allen. Competition: Beyond other women-targeted cable networks Lifetime, SOAPnet and WE, Oxygen jockeys for position with Bravo, E! and VH1.