10 to Watch: Geraldine Laybourne

How does one begin to crack the code behind convergence, the holy grail whereby the Internet and television blur indistinguishably into one?

Start simple: "I can't do anything without first putting on lipstick," deadpans Oxygen Media founder and CEO Geraldine Laybourne, her back turned as she peers into her compact moments before an interview.

Yet the 52-year-old former cable TV executive reminds you more of a muted, almost bookish schoolteacher than the slick programming whiz she is now known to be.

In these shark-infested waters - with iVillage's Candice Carpenter and Women.com's Ellen Pack circling for the kill - Laybourne will need all the help she can muster to seize the lion's share of the women's market, online and off.

So far, she's got a lot of help. When Oxygen's cable network officially launches Feb. 2, powered by $400 million in investment from heavyweights such as America Online, LVMH and Vulcan Ventures, she'll have more than 10 million cable-TV viewers added to the 4.5 million unique visitors a month she says her seven Web sites get.

Founded by Laybourne; TV executives Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach; and talk-show diva Oprah Winfrey in 1998, Oxygen Media was designed from the ground up to be both a women-oriented 24-hour cable network and a system of Web sites serving women-oriented markets.

Laybourne's broadly defined mission is to figure out how to successfully merge these two distinct entities. "The whole premise of Oxygen is this grassroots movement that's trying to connect with the democratic landscape that the Web has provided, and to translate that into a TV network," she explains. "When we go up, we will begin that process."

She's the first to admit that, like everyone else, she has no idea what the convergence landscape will look like. At first glance, it's not too promising.

"On Day One, it's going to be something, but a month later it's going to be something else," Laybourne says. "Two months later, it's going to be something else. That's the only way to be if you're trying to figure this out."

Laybourne pulls the curtains ever so slightly to afford a peek at the new network. For starters, expect to see cable shows with banners running across the bottom 12 percent of the screen, where show producers can point viewers to relevant information and Oxygen sites. She also plans to take discussion threads and themes from the sites' message and chat boards to the TV screen.

The network's launch programming includes Pure Oxygen, a two-hour block of shows dealing with business, entertainment, health, home, parenting and style, and Exhale, a talk show that will be hosted by Candice Bergen. Of course, all will tie into the company's Web sites.

The strategy looks more like a gamble than a clear-cut plan. Or to put it in Laybourne's words: "It's a work in progress. To me, nobody's played around with what the real vocabulary is going to be yet."

If she gets it right, she might need to add "wordsmith" to her growing list of accomplishments.

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