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Oxygen Wins One for Laybourne

Washington – Geraldine Laybourne's company, Oxygen Media, is being sold to NBC Universal – but Oxygen stayed independent long enough to win an award important to its founding CEO.

Oxygen this year topped the list of good places for women employees among cable programmers, as ranked by the Women in Cable Telecommunications PAR Initiative (Pay equity, Advancement opportunities, Resources for work/life support).

Among cable operators, the top company was once again Cox Communications. Both companies collected Forerunner Accolade awards at the WICT Foundation annual benefit dinner here Thursday night, with an estimated 1,100 in attendance in a Grand Hyatt hotel ballroom.

Oxygen launched with great fanfare in 2000 but investors, led by Paul Allen, agreed last month to sell out to NBC Universal for $925 million, well below what Allen and other owners had hoped to get. The deal, announced Oct. 9, is set to close this month, possibly early next week – after which employees expect to hear whether they will be paid for the stock they received in their compensation or, as was indicated to them at the time the deal was announced, that there wouldn’t be money left over to redeem that stock, according to people familiar with the situation who would not speak for attribution.

Neither Oxygen nor NBC would comment on Oxygen transition matters beyond citing past statements that the deal should close in mid to late November.

Laybourne – who is leaving Oxygen -- said in accepting the award that Oxygen came a long way to get that Forerunner Accolade, which is based on surveys by Working Mother Media.

“When the PAR initiative was introduced as an idea, I thought that's fantastic. We won't learn anything from that, but maybe some other companies here will,” she said. “And then we weren't anywhere on the list. It was very humbling -- as much of Oxygen's career was humbling.”

PAR taught Oxygen best practices in areas that the survey scrutinizes, such as clearly spelling out policies about pay equity and work/life balance, Laybourne said. In 2006, Oxygen finished second on the PAR list, behind Discovery Communications.

Laybourne made other wistful references to Oxygen. “Every day we woke up optimistic, even though some days were a little less worthy of being optimistic days,” she said of herself and her executive team, including affiliate sales chief Mary Murano and programmer/marketer Debby Beece.

“Mary and her team – I told them when we started: ‘We have no clout, you have to be the favorite,’” Laybourne said. “And this year, in the Beta [Research] study [of best affiliate marketing teams], we were number one. I actually wept when we found that out, because I didn't mean she had to be number one -- I just sort of meant it to be inspirational.”

At the end, before her standing ovation, Laybourne said she would remain a cheerleader for women in cable.

“I'm going to be watching you all,” she said. “I'm going to be applauding you all. I'm going to be expecting a lot of you all.”

Another retiring executive, Time Warner Cable executive vice president of public affairs Lynn Yaeger, was honored as WICT’s woman of the year.

The Weather Channel Networks executive vice president and general manager Wonya Lucas – who credited her uncle, baseball legend Hank Aaron, as an inspiration – was honored as the group’s woman to watch.