NBCU Names Zalaznick to Head Oxygen, Closes Deal

Oxygen Founder Gerry Laybourne to Leave Cable Network; Cofounder Lisa Gersh to Remain with NBCU

NBC Universal named Bravo chief Lauren Zalaznick to oversee its newly acquired Oxygen channel as it said it closed the deal to buy the women's network for $875 million net of financial assets.

Bravo president and incoming Oxygen president Lauren Zalaznick

Zalaznick -- who is president of Bravo Media and also runs the company's green initiatives -- adds oversight of Oxygen and will continue reporting to Jeff Gaspin, president and chief operating officer of the Universal Television Group, who heads the company's cable networks and worked previously with Zalaznick at VH1.

Zalaznick has managed multiple linear networks before -- she used to oversee both Bravo and Trio, the now-defunct critical darling of quirky cable fare that has been reincarnated as a Web venture.

She assumes the role as current Oxygen chief Gerry Laybourne leaves the company she founded as an independent cable network at the end of the year.

NBCU plans to market Oxygen to advertisers as part of a “virtual women’s network” that would include pop-culture cable network Bravo, morning program Todayand female-focused online community iVillage, NBCU president and CEO Jeff Zuckersaid in announcing the acquisition Oct. 9, as was widely predicted.

While Oxygen gains the cross-promotional power that it could never leverage as an independent, NBCU gains another cable network through which to market its own female-friendly fare, as well as a linear channel through which to market iVillage. NBCU has struggled to leverage iVillage since buying it for $600 million last March, but its cable networks -- including USA Network, Sci Fi Channel and Bravo -- have driven significant growth for the company.

"We believe we can bring great value to the Oxygen brand with our cross-promotion opportunities, programming expertise and distribution team," Gaspin said in a statement. "Lauren has had tremendous success growing Bravo and we know that with her talent and passion, she will do the same with Oxygen."

Many in the industry predicted that Zalaznick would get the nod to lead Oxygen since NBCU announced plans to buy the channel. Since becoming president of Bravo in 2004 as part of NBC’s merger with Universal Television, she turned the once-stodgy arts network into a burgeoning home for pop-culture-focused original reality fare, enough to expand into three nights of originals and generate ample buzz for the network's relative small size (with an average 662,000 viewers in primetime last week, the network ranked as the 27th-most-viewed cable channel).

In an interview with B&Cshortly after the deal was announced, Gaspin said Zalaznick had been a driving force in NBC looking to buy the network in the first place.

"Lauren Zalaznick for the last year would say to me, ‘Oxygen is creeping up. We’re looking at them in our rear-view mirror. Their distribution is getting much closer to ours. They’re starting to copy our formula,’" he said. "Every of our networks does a competitive set and looks at those that their audience overlaps with the most or that have the likelihood of taking their audience share, and Oxygen became that for Bravo within the last year."

Lisa Gersh, currently president and COO of Oxygen Media and a founder of the network with Laybourne, will move with Oxygen to NBCU in a new senior position. She has been largely responsible for growing the independent network to be nearly fully distributed -- 74 million homes -- and steadily increasing its advertiser base since its 2000 launch.

"Lisa is one of the main reasons why Oxygen has become such a valuable brand within the cable marketplace," Zucker said in a statement. "She will be a tremendous asset as we integrate Oxygen into the NBC Universal family, and we're delighted that an executive of her caliber and experience will be staying on with us in a new role."

Zalaznick said she would look for a new programming chief -- Oxygen’s current head of programming, Debby Beece, resigned from the network Friday -- but she would try to keep Bravo’s team separate from Oxygen’s to separate the two networks creatively.

NBCU plans to cut some of Oxygen’s staff of about 250 where there are redundancies, but it did not specify how many. Zalaznick said she planned to visit the Oxygen team the week after next for a town-hall meeting.

While she said she did not yet know how she would look to solidify Oxygen’s brand or change its programming, Zalaznick said she and NBCU were up for the challenge of making the channel a bigger presence with viewers.

“It’s so squarely in our wheelhouse,” she added. “I can’t say I know how to do it, but I know what to do. It just needs more focus, more resources, more cross-promotion, more marketing savvy.”