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Oprah's Countdown to Cable Begins

11/28/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Oprah Winfrey has embarked on the long goodbye to her landmark syndicated talk show, but the queen of daytime TV has a shorter period to say hello to the cable industry.

On Nov. 20, Winfrey officially announced that The Oprah Winfrey Show would wrap after a 25-year run on Sept. 9, 2011.

OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network is to debut eight months earlier, in January 2011.

The announcement left CBS Television Distribution, the distributor of the syndicated stalwart, to come to grips with the loss of its meal ticket, TV stations looking for replacements and the syndicated community on the watch for new on-air royalty to ascend.

Cable companies and other multichannel video providers, though, are left to ponder a number of questions about OWN.

A joint venture between Discovery Communications and Winfrey, the establishment of OWN was first declared in January 2008, with an initial eye toward launching the network, which will assume the channel position occupied by Discovery Health, in 2009. The venture also includes Oprah.com.

Focusing on the media mogul and personal empowerment — as well as health and medical programming, in keeping with Discovery Health's carriage covenants — OWN's debut was pushed back as it backtracked from some early hires and forged its executive team, including former MTV head Christina Norman as CEO in Los Angeles, and before the leader finalized her syndicated intentions.

At an upfront presentation to advertisers in April, Norman indicated OWN programming would be grouped under three guideposts: “best life all stars,” “best life experiences” and “best life inspiration.” The programming game plan called for a mix of acquired and original fare, encompassing strips, specials and acquired films.

One insider said OWN, in many ways, will be reminiscent of O, The Oprah Magazine, with Winfrey on the cover and back pages and “inspiring everything that's in between.”

Although OWN will have thousands of hours of The Oprah Winfrey Show at its disposal upon the show's cessation in September 2011, it won't have fresh installments. Winfrey, according to OWN executives, is expected to have a daily presence on the service, but will not reprise her syndicated talker per se.

Whatever form Winfrey's new show takes, it will likely bow in primetime, where it would be available to more viewers — and face stiffer competition from broadcast and cable networks' myriad slates. The show, like other fare, would be repeated throughout the schedule.

Some expect OWN could become the cable home to Winfrey's syndicated acolytes, such as Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and The Rachael Ray Show.

As for originals, OWN officials say the programs showcased during the upfront remain in various stages of development.

There's a quartet from Winfrey's Harpo Productions: The Peter Walsh Project, featuring the de-clutter expert and guest of The Oprah Winfrey Show with other experts helping people uncover what is really going on in their lives; a one-hour talker from sex therapist Dr. Laura Berman, based in Chicago; an investigative series from Lisa Ling; and Master Class, featuring extraordinary people of our time as handpicked by Winfrey.

Also, Excellent Adventure will pair a celebrity and his or her best friend on a journey they always wanted to share, while Surfer's Healing is a docusoap about a former competitive surfer, his wife and three kids — one of whom is autistic — and their surf-school business.

OWN executives suggest more programming news will be divulged during a pre-upfront presentation sometime early next year.

Those shows, other programming and Winfrey's popularity will presumably push OWN past Discovery Health's audience-delivery levels, which saw it average a 0.1 rating in total day and a 0.3 primetime mark during the third quarter, and justify the increased license fee the network is seeking.

The channel — with affiliate efforts now being helmed by executive vice president of distribution and strategy Allan Singer, formerly of Comcast — is reportedly asking for as much as 40 cents to 50 cents per subscriber.

That's a steep price for a start-over service, even one fronted by Winfrey, and as much as a fourfold jump over the 12 cents Discovery Health currently commands, according to SNL Kagan estimates.

OWN's executive team also includes The Oprah Winfrey Show co-executive producer Lisa Erspamer as chief creative officer; Kathleen Kayse, who had been heading Discovery's digital media sales, as executive VP of ad sales; Jamila Hunter as head of programming; Doug Levy as vice president of operations; Brent Willman as CFO; Jeffrey Meier as senior VP of scheduling, acquisitions and strategy; Meredith Momoda as VP of integrated marketing; and Robert Tercek as president of digital media.

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