Oprah Begins Her Cable Countdown


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 now set to debut eight months earlier in January, 2011.

That 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, It also includes Oprah.com.

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

Last April at OWN's upfront presentation to advertisers, Norman indicated that programming would be grouped under three guideposts: "best life all stars," "best life experiences," and "best life inspiration." At that time, OWN executives said 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 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 2009, the network will not have fresh versions of it. 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 take, it will likely bow in primetime where it would be available to more viewers, as well as face stiffer competition from broadcast and cable networks' myriad slates. The show, like other fare, would be encored throughout the schedule.

By the same token, some anticipate that OWN could become the cable home to Winfrey syndicated acolytes like Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and The Rachael Ray Show.

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

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

Additionally, Excellent Adventure will pair a celebrity and their best friend on journey they always wanted to share together, 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 will not be able to benefit from any scripted fare from Harpo Films, which last year entered into an exclusive cable development deal with HBO.)

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 network -- whose distribution efforts had been handled by the team of Bill Goodwyn, president, Domestic Distribution and Enterprises and president, Discovery Education, Discovery Communications, and are now being helmed by OWN executive vice president of distribution and strategy Allan Singer -- is reportedly asking for as much as 40 cents to 50 cents per subscriber. That's a steep price for a start-over service, albeit one fronted by Winfrey, and as much as fourfold jump over the 12 cents Discovery Health currently commands, according to SNL Kagan estimates.

In addition to Norman and Singer, who had been working under Matt Bond as Comcast's senior vice president of content acquisition, OWN has largely completed its executive team. It has hired 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 vice of ad sales; Jamila Hunter as head of programming; Doug Levy, as vice president of operations; Brent Willman as CFO; Jeffrey Meier, as senior vice president of scheduling, acquisitions and strategy; Meredith Momoda, as vice president of integrated marketing; and Robert Tercek, president of digital media, among others.

Still, much work remains relative to personnel in such disciplines as programming, marketing and online. One network insider estimated OWN has only hired about half its staff thus far.

The network will also rely on contributions from Winfrey's crew in Chicago, as well as human and other resources from Discovery CEO David Zaslav's team in Silver Spring, Md.