As a child, Lisa Gersh Hall, president, chief operating officer and co-founder of Oxygen Media, thought she'd wind up in television — much to the dismay of her parents. “I was a TV junkie in the days of three networks. You could talk to me while the TV was on, but I really didn't hear you,” she says.
Her small-screen interest was diametrically opposed to that of her twin sister. “She never watched anything,” says Hall, a point repeatedly driven home by her parents, accompanied by the prediction: “You'll never amount to anything.”
“Well, I did amount to something. I went to law school,” she says of the career path that eventually led her to the TV world.
Hall began her legal career at Debevoise & Plimpto, before serving as founding partner in the New York-based Friedman Kaplan & Seiller LLP from 1986 to 1998. Over that span, the firm grew from six lawyers to 40 as it worked for a broad client base involving commercial litigation, corporate transactions and executive compensation.
Hall is an old family friend of Oxygen founder and chairman Geraldine Laybourne. But their first professional contact came during the latter's tenure at Nickelodeon. “I was doing Gerry's contract renewal, and she wanted to take a break after taking part of her deposition. It's a very tiring process. We went into another conference room, and she laid down on a table and said, 'Don't tell me you do this everyday.' I knew then it was time for a change.”
“You could say I saved her from a life as a successful corporate attorney,” Laybourne jokes. “Lisa is a tremendously creative deal maker and business builder. Her problem-solving skills are almost as good as her people skills. If you are in her 'network' like I am, she really knows how to harness your energy in a powerful way — so watch out!”
Working to reach out to what they identified as a void in the TV landscape — young women — Oxygen launched on Feb. 2, 2000. As it approaches its fifth anniversary, Hall is proud of what the company has accomplished — “Oxygen is the only media company run by women” — and its role as an independent.
“We don't have the muscle, the leverage of big media companies. I'm not saying that's not challenging in this environment, but we can react more quickly to certain opportunities than big media. You learn to use your independence to your advantage, or you get bought,” Hall says.
She acknowledges that Oxygen has changed its positioning to some extent, after coming out of the gate with a heavy dose of original, but unknown, programming and a strategy that pushed viewers to and from its online entities. “When we started it was more of a convergence idea, with the Internet. Now we're more a cable network, more of a traditional business.” Hall's role has also evolved. She was the principle engineer of Oxygen's founding partnerships, including deals with Carsey-Werner and Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Media.
With overall responsibilities for the company's day-to-day operations, she has led the company's advertising sales team since 2002, doubling its revenue base over that period. She has also been integrally involved in striking the network's distribution agreements. Last year was a big one for Oxygen, as it finished in the black for the first time. In fact, revenues were 35% over the network's target, fueled by gains in affiliate and advertiser fees. The network, which added 4 million homes last year to push its base to almost 54 million, also signed long-term renewal pacts with Charter Communications Corp. and Insight Communications Co.
On the Nielsen front, Oxygen registered a 53% rise in its total-day impressions among women 18 to 49 and a 59% total-day jump among women 18 to 34.
“We work for three constituents: affiliates, advertisers and viewers,” says Hall. “What we're doing must work for all three.” She's quick to mention that many people have had a hand in Oxygen's success. “We have a fabulously close executive team that collaborates well. [President of programming] Debby Beece has fantastic, gut instincts about shows. [Executive vice president of affiliate sales] Mary Murano and her group have done an incredible job. This is a team effort.”
Revisiting her youthful enthusiasm for TV, Hall also has high praise for a trio of the network's programs: Oprah After the Show, Talk Sex With Sue Johanson and The Ellen Degeneres Show. “There's not a better end of the day than watching that show,” Hall says of the latter.
Additional subscribers, combined with higher advertising sales will lead to greater profits in 2005, according to Hall, who has maintained a manifest destiny mantra with regard to distribution. “When we were in 10 million homes, I said, 'Can't we just get to 20 million?' Then I said: '30 million is really good, but [let's hit] 40.' I won't be satisfied until we're fully distributed.”
To make that jump, Oxygen will push for continued rollouts with extant partners, and it must come to terms with EchoStar Communications Corp. “We know [EchoStar chairman and CEO] Charlie [Ergen] wants to add us. We know we're going to get it done,” says Hall.
Hall resides with her family in Manhattan. As for the next generation, 14-year-old Sam shares her mother's interest in TV and has already spent some time working in Oxygen's press department. “She has a lot of opinions about our marketing, press materials and what's on our air,” says Hall. “Her dad's a lawyer, too, so we're pushing her away from a legal career. She's a great writer, though. She'll probably look to marketing.” As for eight-year-old Maddy, mom has no doubts about where she's headed professionally: “CEO. She has no attention for details.”