Oprah Winfrey gets her OWN network

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Oprah Winfrey is adding a cable network to her media empire through a deal with Discovery Communications.

Oprah Winfrey arrives at the premiere of "The Great Debaters" at the Arclight Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, California December 11, 2007. Winfrey is adding a cable network to her media empire through a deal with Discovery Communications. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The channel, dubbed OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, is described as a multiplatform venture “designed to entertain, inform and inspire people to live their best lives.” The channel, which will be 50-50 owned by Discovery and Winfrey’s Harpo Prods., will debut in the second half of 2009 in 70 million homes, replacing the 9-year-old Discovery Health Channel.

Winfrey, who is contributing to the joint venture, will serve as chairman of the network. She will have “full editorial control” over OWN’s programming, branding and creative vision. A search for a CEO to oversee day-to-day operations is under way.

“There is no stronger brand in media than Oprah,” said David Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery Communications. “The brand is aspirational, very authentic and stands for inspiring and entertaining people and empowering them to live their best lives. Discovery’s core mission is knowledge and curiosity, and this fits right in that sweet spot.”

Winfrey said Zaslav, who just celebrated one year at Discovery, had approached her about the venture several months ago, and it seemed like a good fit.

“In 1992, I wrote in my journal that I had a vision of creating my own network, using the platform of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ and the world we’ve created all these years to leverage into this kind of network that will inspire and entertain people,” she said, adding that there was “an instant connection” with Zaslav. We had many conversations making sure we were aligned with the same vision.”

Winfrey said programs already are in development but declined to discuss specifics, other than to say shows likely will revolve around such topics as money, work, health, weight, relationships, parenting and charity.

The current general manager of the Health Channel is Carole Tomko, who will continue to run the outlet during the likely 8-month transition. It’s unclear what role she and her staff will play thereafter.

Zaslav added that some Discovery Health programming could make its way to OWN but the primary focus is to create “original, quality content that really connects with people.”

The network initially will not feature “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on its schedule because the local stations carrying the talker have exclusive rights to the strip, which is produced by Harpo and distributed by CBS Television Distribution. Winfrey has signed on to host the talk show through the 2010-11 season but has the option to bow out a year earlier, after which time the show could move to OWN. Winfrey said she will make any decisions about continuing the show by the fall.

Zaslav said cable operators have responded “positively” to the news and expects the same response from advertisers. He said that the channel will be promoted across Discovery’s 13 networks and added that the goal is to expand OWN internationally as well.

Discovery and Harpo will contribute advertising sales services for the channel, which will be simulcast in high definition. It’s yet to be determined where OWN will be based; Harpo is headquartered in Chicago, while Discovery is based in Silver Spring, Md.

The addition of a network to Winfrey’s empire expands a business that spans multiple platforms, including television, feature films, online, publishing and radio. Winfrey said Harpo will continue producing shows for syndication and primetime. Harpo is behind three of the top-rated syndicated series: “Oprah,” “Dr. Phil” and “Rachael Ray.” The company’s first primetime series, “Oprah’s Big Give,” is slated to premiere on ABC in March.

TV consultant Bill Carroll, vp and director of programming at Katz Television, said he wasn’t surprised by the OWN news.

“Oprah brings the cachet of her name and also has the advantage of launching on an established network; the combination of the two makes perfect sense,” he said. “And when Oprah endorses something, it generates an immediate positive reaction on the part of her audience. There’s every reason to believe she could bring viewers over to a cable network.”

Winfrey is not new to the television network business. She was one of the initial investors in Oxygen, but said that relationship was much different from the one with Discovery.

“The channel did not reflect my voice, and I was not a participant in the development of the channel,” she said. “Shortly after a couple of the board meetings, I took myself off the board. This is very different. I am the chairman, I will be choosing the CEO, and I will be involved in every single element of the programming.”

Oxygen, which NBC Universal acquired in November in a transaction valued at $875 million, did feature Winfrey on-air in the half-hour series “Oprah After the Show” and as host of “Oprah Goes Online.”

Said Zaslav: “Unlike Oxygen, this isn’t going to be just women. It’s really about a connection with people.”

Discovery also is relaunching two other networks -- Discovery Times Channel as Investigation Discovery, or ID, and Discovery Home Channel as Planet Green -- this year.

Zaslav declined to say whether any other relaunches are in the works, except that “we’re always looking for ways to use our platforms and figure out how to get the most out of them in a very loud crowded marketplace.”

The companies said no cash exchanged hands and that the Oprah Winfrey Network will be an independent company.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter