What to expect when the Oprah Winfrey Network launches Jan. 1: plenty of programming that Oprah herself would like to watch. What not to expect: too much of Oprah herself.
“We look a lot to ‘O, the Oprah Magazine,’ and to ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ to figure out where we can go, and that’s everywhere from fashion to fiction to interesting people you want to know,” says Christina Norman, OWN’s CEO and former president of MTV. After leaving MTV and taking a year off, Norman was hired at OWN in January 2009 to whip the much-anticipated cabler into launch shape.
OWN was first announced in January 2008, with a late 2009 expected premiere date. But launching an entire network is easier said than done, and the net went through a roller-coaster ride of staff churn and programming challenges. Since the arrival of Norman, and chief creative officer Lisa Erspamer one year later, things have gradually stabilized. On New Year’s Day, Discovery Health will morph into OWN, a 50-50 joint venture between Discovery and Winfrey’s Harpo. The channel will have about 80 million subscribers at launch.
At present, cable operators pay approximately 7¢ per subscriber for Discovery Health. Discovery wants nearly triple that — or 20¢ per sub — for OWN. In success, that’s a profitable formula.
Derek Baine, an analyst at SNL Kagan, estimates that by 2014, OWN will have nearly 94 million subscribers at 21¢ a pop, and $202 million in gross advertising revenue. If his predictions are correct, OWN would earn approximately $400 million in operating revenue by 2014, a 40% cash-flow margin.
That kind of success will depend on producing programming that satisfies fans’ apparently insatiable craving for all things Oprah, while attracting new viewers with entertaining and informative shows.
“We want viewers to feel like Oprah has curated this network for them,” Norman says. “All of the shows will be inspired and guided by Oprah.”
OWN viewers will be treated to an initial blast of Oprah as Winfrey counts down the network’s launch on the morning of Saturday, Jan. 1. Once the network gets going, Winfrey will appear in a few places. “Oprah Presents Master Class” is an interview series featuring Oprah talking with a range of celebrities, while “Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes,” is the first time that Oprah has allowed an extensive backstage look at her storied talkshow.
“The beauty of having your own network is that you can show up whenever you want to,” Norman says.
The rest of OWN will be populated by Oprah’s nearest and dearest. Oprah BFF Gayle King will host her own talkshow, while “Best of Dr. Phil,” licensed from “Dr. Phil” distributor CBS Television Distribution, will double run at 7 and 11 p.m.
Sunday nights in January will play like Oprah old-home week, with the “Oprah All-Stars” — Dr. Phil, Suze Orman and Dr. Mehmet Oz — taking questions during four two-hour specials.
And taking a page from the Food Network, Oprah searches for OWN’s next star with “Your Own Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star,” from Mark Burnett and hosted by Carson Kressley and Nancy O’Dell.
More programming will be added as the year goes on, with new rollouts of shows scheduled for spring and fall. Come September, the network will launch a new version of “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” and Oprah herself will be freer to make appearances after wrapping up her syndie yakker in the spring.
Discovery convinced Winfrey to commit to appear in 70 total hours in the first year, up from her original commitment of 35. But due to contracts with affiliates, Winfrey is prevented from starring in any show that would feel competitive to the stations, which run her show from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and then double-run it in some markets — and that’s why she’s primarily appearing in the Sunday series of “Master Class” specials.
Promoting all of this is at once simple and complicated, says Darren Schillace, OWN’s veep of consumer marketing.
“Step one is making people aware that the OWN brand is separate from the Oprah brand,” Schillace says. “OWN is much more of a broad entertainment network with her name, face and likeness on the front door. But at the end of the day, It’s OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network on Jan. 1 on your TV. What else do you need to know?”
Staying simple is what makes promoting OWN complicated: “We wanted to manage the over-hyping of the network because it would have worked against us. People expect a lot from Oprah.”
So do advertisers. Nine top-flight brands have signed up to be OWN’s launch partners: Chase, General Motors, Kellog’s, Kohl’s, P&G, Nissan, Target, Toyota and Walmart. The brands were interested enough in getting in on OWN’s ground floor that they didn’t care about maintaining category exclusivity, says Kathleen Kayse, OWN’s executive vice president of advertising.
“What we found is that they were more interested in having exclusivity around customized ideas within the network,” Kayse says.
Kohl’s is serving as the premiere sponsor of “Your Own Show,” going so far as to hold auditions for the show at four of its stores last summer. Later in 2011, P&G will unveil a multi-platform campaign that is meant to “break down the walls and reshape and remodel how messaging takes place,” Kayse says.
Asked what she’s most looking forward to about OWN’s launch, Norman says: “Getting OWN on the air. It only exists in my head right now and I want to get it out into the world. I want to come into the office every day and put on my television and watch it.”