Ten months before the much-anticipated launch of Oprah
Winfrey Network, CEO Christina Norman is opening up.
OWN, the basic-cable network co-owned by Discovery
Communications and Oprah Winfrey, is on track to supplant the Discovery Health
Channel next January with programming that will look to inspire and embolden
the lives of its viewers, much as Winfrey's popular syndicated daytime talk
show The Oprah Winfrey Show has done over the past 25 years.
Among the new series already announced: a behind-the-scenes
look at the final season of The Oprah Winfrey Show; and a Documentary Film Club
series which will feature inspiring and encouraging documentary films,
including 2010 Sundance Film Festival entry Family
Other new shows on the network's docket include: The Peter Walsh Project, featuring the
namesake designer; a series from sex therapist Dr. Laura Berman; an
investigative series from Lisa Ling; Master
Class, featuring Winfrey-picked extraordinary people of our time; Excellent Adventure, which pairs a
celebrity and their best friend on a shared journey; and docusoap Surfer's Healing.
Winfrey herself will have a recurring "on-air presence" on
the network in a new series once her syndicated show wraps up in September
2011. Along with original fare, OWN will offer acquired theatrical films,
beginning with the exclusive broadcast rights to the Academy Award-nominated
OWN hopes Winfrey's appeal and its programming slate will
help convince operators to ante up as much as 50 cents per subscriber for the
new service, more than quadruple the current 12-cent fee for Discovery Health. Norman
said she expects OWN to launch in front of 75 million subscribers -- 70 million
of which are current Discovery Health customers.
Last week, the former MTV and VH1 executive sat down with Multichannel News programming editor R.
Thomas Umstead to talk about her OWN philosophy.
MCN: What can a viewer expect to see on OWN?
We're actually working on three big programming themes which speak to the
values that Oprah has stood for over the past 25 years and the things that she
wants to bring to the audience with this network. The first is "take charge of
your life," and that is so central to what Oprah has done. You'll see that
borne out with a number of experts that youâ€˜ve seen Oprah champion over the
past 25 years like [sex therapist] Laura Berman and [Winfrey fitness trainer]
Bob Greene who will be coming to OWN.
The next one that we talk about is "dream and do it." Nobody
has stood for making your dreams come true more so than Oprah - whether it's
giving away cars, as she famously did, or the launch of this network, which is
the culmination of her dream. I think what that says is that you really can
achieve your dreams and we can give you the tools to help you achieve your
The last one is "look beyond yourself." Some of the most
memorable shows I've seen Oprah do over the years are ones that you think
aren't going to do anything to you. You initially say, "why do I care about
this person?" but then find yourself completely transformed by their story.
Those are the three big programming themes that we're playing in and you'll see
these things unfold in all sorts of ways from nonfiction series to specials to
interstitials in primetime.
Daytime is also something that we're looking at and where
you'll see original series as well.
Clearly, acquisitions will also look to be part of this
network. One of the first things we announced is the OWN Documentary Film Club, focusing on issues and stories that we
really know connect with this audience and don't have a platform someplace
else. Hopefully the OWN Documentary Film
Club can do for these projects and these issues what Oprah's book club has
done for books.
We've already acquired our first movie at Sundance, Family Affair, and we'll be acquiring
theatrical films as well. We've acquired [Academy Award-nominated movie]
Precious in its first broadcast-television window and we have to make sure
we're in the market for movies that are right on brand for us.
Overall, we're looking to have fun and be relevant and
optimistic -- not just stacking five episodes together but really being alive
in the world for our audience.
MCN: Have you given any thought to original
CN: I think
scripted is obviously something we'd do somewhere down the line. I think we've
all seen some networks struggle in that regard, so its important for us to be
really close, listen to our audience and take from them the kind of series that
will resonate with them. This is a long-term opportunity and as this network
continues to grow and evolve, you're going to see different types of
programming enter our schedule.
MCN: Any shot at airing original films from
Oprah's Harpo Films division? I know Harpo cut a deal with HBO to develop
original films for the pay service.
CN: Kate Forte
runs Harpo Films -- she's amazing and they do fantastic work, but that's not my
primary focus right now. Just as scripted fare is something we might invest in
down the line, [original movies] are not my focus in the first couple of years
for us. That said, I would love to partner with Kate on movies that she thinks
are right for us down the road, and I know we'll have that opportunity.
MCN: How frequently will Oprah herself appear
on the network?
CN: One of the
shows that you're going to see is Behind
the Scenes: The 25th Anniversary. Obviously, Oprah and that team in Chicago
are pulling out all the stops to make that final season the blowout to end all
blowouts and I think you'll see that in this show. Oprah will have a presence
on that show - this is the final season through her eyes. We'll be there from the
pre-production meetings, talking to producers and the audience. No one has ever
gone behind the scenes at Harpo before to see the people and the craziness, so
I think this will be a great, great series for the audience.
MCN: Once the Behind the Scenes show is over, will Oprah have a regular on-air
presence on OWN?
CN: As Oprah said, it's the end of The Oprah Winfrey Show -- that show is not going to air anymore.
But clearly, the beauty of having your own network is that it can be the place
where her next big idea is going to be seen. We're working with her now on what
that is, what the format will be, what she does and doesn't want to do, what
she hasn't done before and how she can she really have a big presence on the
network. We will be premiering a new series with her after the syndicated show
goes off the air, and we're looking at a bunch of different ideas for what that
can be. The beauty of having this network is that Oprah can say, "I want to go
on the air tomorrow and I want to talk about X," and for us to be able to do
that. The reason The Oprah Winfrey Show
has been so successful is that when you are talking about it, she's talking
about it. I think being relevant and alive in our audience's life is key and
we're building opportunities for Oprah to be able to do that whenever she wants
to do that.
MCN: How many subscribers will the network
have at launch?
CN: We will have
75 million subscribers at launch when we take over Discovery Health. We're so
lucky to come into this with a built in audience from [Winfrey's O, The Oprah Magazine], Oprah.com and
from the daily show. Seventy-nine percent of women 25 to 54, when they were
described OWN's mission and programming focus, said that they were interested
in this network. That's an incredibly powerful number. This is a compelling
offer from a one-of-a kind television pioneer; her audience sees the value and
they will follow her. I think that is a compelling offer for our cable
MCN: It's been reported that OWN will ask for
a license fee of as much as 50 cents, which is well above Discovery Health's
reported 12 cents. You're a veteran of the cable industry and you know how
potentially contentious discussions between operators and networks can be. Are
you confident you'll be able to secure industry-wide distribution of the
CN: We are
definitely looking at pricing that is commensurate with its value. I'm
confident we'll gain carriage because the audience will speak ... the audience
wants this content. There is nothing else like this out there and I think
that is a really compelling proposition.
As you said, I'm a veteran of the cable industry and I understand how these
conversations go. I think we'll be demonstrating considerable value for our
cable-operator partners that will make this a smart decision on their end. I'm
not asking for something for free -- I'm bringing something of value.
MCN: Will OWN have a multiplatform play as
CN: Oprah.com is
the home of all things Oprah, so that will encompass OWN as it currently
encompasses O magazine and The Oprah Winfrey Show. We are using
that destination to be the one stop for everyone who wants anything
Oprah-related. OWN will also be HD ready at launch.
MCN: Will full episodes from OWN original
series eventually be available on Oprah.com?
CN: I think that
what we've all seen borne out is that putting a television network online
doesn't do anyone any good. I don't know if it's about taking the shows and
putting it online, but I think that what you see on Oprah.com currently --
including video clips, outtakes and extended experiences -- is what we're
looking to build.
We want to give operators opportunities to connect with an
audience via a multiplatform experience that does not diminish the value of the
MCN: How much input will Discovery
Communications have on OWN's programming and operational decisions?
CN: We have a
board that [Discovery Communications CEO] David Zaslav, [Discovery chief
operating officer] Peter Ligouri, [former MTV executive and OWN adviser] Tom
Freston and Oprah sit on that we present programming ideas to. Those guys are
great programmers and Oprah has incredible instincts on what works on
television. I think the beauty of this joint venture in that you get to partner
with people who have made great things for television, have strong opinions and
have the ability to market and support what it is that we're doing. I welcome
MCN: Will any of the Discovery Health content
remain on OWN?
CN: Clearly, we don't want to alienate the Discovery
Health audience - it's been a great business and they've done some great
programming. We are looking at ways to refresh some of the existing franchises
and present them to the OWN audience with a bit of a facelift. Mystery Diagnosis is one that we're
looking at that fits into our brand, as well as Deliver Me. We're also looking to do specials with Dr. G [medical
examiner Jan Garavaglia], as well as other ways to make that library work on