Rise of the Independents

Publish date:
Updated on

Yes. I am a cable industry relic and darned proud of it. I was fortunate enough to be around in the early days of cable.

Let me set the scene. It is 1980. Consumers called all of cable “HBO” and most people thought it was about reception. The broadcasters really did sneer at us; they thought we were idiotic hopeless dreamers.

Few believed there was a need for more than three networks. It wasn’t easy convincing the world or even our companies that kids could support a whole network with original programming — or for that matter — that music set to video would become the foundation for a cultural phenomenon that would continue to make an impact 25 years later.

We had to be truly creative in getting the resources to build and we had to listen hard to consumers in order to change fundamental consumer behavior.

Now that we have all these successful brands we tend to forget how hard it really was to accomplish what we did. Honestly, to have eroded broadcast viewing in just two decades to fewer than 50% of all viewing is pretty amazing.

It was hard but not impossible. There was a value on the entrepreneurial spirit and a desire in the industry to see real change happen. Independent voices were shouting out and being heard — loud and clear. And their efforts resulted in the creation of strong brands and billions and billions of dollars of value.

I worry that Oxygen may be the last widely distributed independent cable channel. We just surpassed the 55 million subscriber mark — a mark which virtually guarantees we won’t go away.

Now that Al Gore is launching Current, I have been called by many reporters regarding if it will work. Some asked if it was hard to get Oxygen to this place. Uh … in a word … YES! It was close to impossible.

I hope I am wrong about this impossibility. I hope there is room for more entrepreneurs because Current is an innovative idea and programming head David Newman is very talented. I hope they make it.

I would argue that the industry needs independents now more than ever. As an industry, we have a lot to figure out about the digital world — video on demand, high-speed Internet, digital video recorders, interactive advertising and broadband content. It’s not enough to offer new exciting technologies; the content has to be there.

Independent companies don’t have vested interests to protect so we can be just a little dangerous. An independent network has no leverage so we need to concentrate on solving operators’ problems. We can take risks by offering content or marketing support or experiment with advertisers on VOD while larger companies don’t really need to be so accommodating.

The broadcasters couldn’t imagine the future of cable because they were protecting their vested interest. Scrappy independents like to upend the status quo, we like a new order, we embrace change. Let’s hope our industry still has room for the young John Hendricks, Ted Turners and Bob Pittmans. Geraldine Laybourne is the founder, chairman and CEO of Oxygen Media. She served as president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks from 1996-1998. Prior to that, she spent 16 years with Nickelodeon.