Don't expect same Oprah show: Discovery

NEW YORK Wed Dec 2, 2009 7:09pm EST

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Oprah Winfrey's cable network will feature the media queen in a big way, but people should not expect her to reprise the talk show that made her famous over the past 25 years, said the CEO of Discovery Communications Inc (DISCA.O).

Winfrey will end her reigning daytime broadcast TV talk show in September 2011, and focus on her new Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), which is 50 percent owned by Discovery.

"That's chapter one. That chapter is ending," Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav said at the Reuters Global Media Summit in New York on Wednesday. "She will not be doing that show."

Zaslav said Winfrey is already spending significant time on the project and is involved in "all the creative decisions."

He said the network will feature her in many ways following its launch in 2011, though he did not say what those would be. Initially, the network will be available in at least 80 million homes.

"She'll be on in a meaningful way, with different types of shows, with different types of voices, with a lot of different creativity, but all of it will be different from her show and it will be what she wants to do," he said.

Discovery stands to be perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Winfrey's announcement last month that she plans to pull the plug on the network broadcast of her popular TV show.

Walt Disney Co's (DIS.N) ABC, which currently carries her show, has not decided on how to replace her.

"It's a big win for the cable industry and for us that Oprah will, after September 2011, be available primarily on OWN," Zaslav said. "OWN will really feel the strength of her creativity and presence."

Discovery Communications already owns some of the most popular networks on cable TV, including the flagship Discovery Channel, with hits like "MythBusters" and "Shark Week."

In all, Discovery runs over 100 networks in 170 countries, and has been one of the biggest winners in the media business this year, thanks largely to the dual revenue streams of advertising and subscriptions that cable provides.

Shares of the company, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, are up 128 percent this year, far outpacing companies like Time Warner Inc (TWX.N), Viacom Inc VIAb.N and Disney.

As Discovery has reduced its leverage and pushed back the maturities on some of its debt, analysts have raised the notion that it could return cash to shareholders through a dividend, or possibly a buyback.

Zaslav downplayed that likelihood.

"Our focus is to use that free cash flow to figure out how to create additional shareholder value," he said. "Can we invest that domestically or internationally? Either with our core business or to acquire assets that will give us more growth? If we can't do that, we'll look at returning it to shareholders."

Zaslav said the company has looked at possible acquisitions for several years. He has not yet "found anything meaningful that we think would help us grow faster," but would continue to look, particularly overseas.

Meanwhile, Zaslav said there are no plans to move more full-length shows online. As it is, Discovery's programs appear as clips on the Web, since, Zaslav said, the "value created by putting long-form content online has been small" in most instances.

"People tend to view content in 2-4 minutes (segments) and that is what we are playing to," he said.

(Reporting by Robert MacMillan and Paul Thomasch, editing by Leslie Gevirtz)

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