Winfrey looks to work magic with TV network

The market conditions for launching a cable channel next year are not exactly ideal.

The advertising business is in the tank, and the monthly cable or satellite bill is surely one of the first luxuries people will dump when hard times hit.

But the forecast is still rosy for one startup expected to bow by the end of next year, thanks to the Midas touch of its co-owner, Oprah Winfrey. Certainly, Winfrey and Discovery Communications, her partner in the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), have not stinted so far during the construction phase of their joint venture since it was unveiled in January. The launch is slated for late 2009 or early 2010.

Los Angeles-based OWN has recruited a number of prominent TV biz execs for senior positions, including Robin Schwartz, former prexy of the Fox/New Regency joint venture Regency TV, as prez; former Lifetime exec Maria Grasso as senior veep of programming; and seasoned comedy producer Nina Wass as senior VP of creative affairs. Robert Tercek, former MTV marketing maven, was recently named prexy of digital media.

Schwartz, who signed on in July, says OWN initially is focused on unscripted skeins, despite the depth of the exec team’s experience with scripted programming.

“The mission is to create the first network about living your best life,” Schwartz says. That means “a lot of empowering, inspirational programming that’s entertaining and meaningful.”

Winfrey, who controls all aspects of the channel as OWN chairman, said as much when the partnership was first unveiled.

“We’ll deal with topics such as money, health and relationships. I want to create a niche, a place where people can go to feel better about their lives,” she told reporters in January.

OWN will mine many of the same topics Winfrey tackles in her top-rated daily talker, although Schwartz is quick to stress that the channel does not aim to be a femme-centric competitor to Lifetime, Oxygen (which Winfrey co-founded) or We.

“Our goal is … to be inclusive of a lot of different segments of the audience,” Schwartz says.

But even if men don’t flock to the OWN tent, Winfrey’s track record with her talkshow, magazine and satellite radio yakker suggests she won’t have too much trouble getting her core aud to give her channel a try. (Just ask president-elect Barack Obama about her powers of persuasion.)

Her eye for non-Oprah TV talent is pretty good too: Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray and Dr. Mehmet Oz got their starts on Winfrey’s stage.

Thanks to the muscle that Discovery, controlled by John Malone’s Liberty Media, brings to the partnership, OWN will launch with a built-in ad sales and marketing infrastructure, and most important, built-in distribution in nearly 70 million cable/satellite homes. OWN will take over the channel space and subs now devoted to the flagging Discovery Health channel.

Under the direction of CEO David Zaslav, Discovery has been on a tear of extreme makeovers of the underperforming spinoffs of the Discovery Channel mothership. The Discovery Home channel earlier this year became Planet Green. A joint venture with the New York Times ended early this year with the Discovery Times channel being rechristened Investigation Discovery.

But the partnership with Winfrey is by far Zaslav’s biggest bet. The agreement was described as a “cashless transaction” that created a 50-50 joint venture, with OWN to be considered a separate entity from the other Discovery-branded cablers.

Zaslav caused a bit of stir on Nov. 7 in noting matter-of-factly during a Discovery earnings call that Winfrey would end her syndicated yakker when her contract was up in 2011 to focus her TV energy on running OWN.

Winfrey’s Chicago-based Harpo Prods. was quick to clarify that she had not made any decision about whether to continue “The Oprah Winfrey Show” beyond the 2010-11 season. The talkshow is not expected to have a place on OWN, at least at the outset, due to her exclusive contracts with local stations.

Biz observers say that even as the viewership playing field between broadcast and cable TV continues to flatten, Winfrey could not buy a better promotional springboard for OWN than her well-established daytime berth.

“Her greatest influence comes from being on broadcast television,” says Katz TV analyst Bill Carroll. “No one will ever have the platform she has today.”

For now, Winfrey continues to fortify OWN with experienced execs; Schwartz says the team is in the hunt for a chief operating officer and a chief marketing officer.

At the time Schwartz was appointed, OWN said it was still hunting for an overarching CEO, but for the moment, that search is on the back burner. For one thing, it’s understood that at least one candidate approached wanted more equity in the business than Winfrey or Discovery were willing to give.

Even with Winfrey’s name on the door, OWN will ultimately rise or fall on the strength of its programming. Schwartz assures that the channel has a slew of development percolating with Harpo Prods. as well as outside suppliers, and that the channel’s first talent announcements are expected soon.

“Oprah’s involved in every aspect of the channel,” Schwartz says. OWN will be in many ways a manifestation of Winfrey . “It will encompass a lot of the core values that you see in the brand itself.”

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.

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