Says the gamble on cabler is 'worth the risk'

Oprah Winfrey admits there may be some rocky times ahead for her new cabler.

But OWN already pulled off its first challenge: attracting audiences to its New Year’s Day launch. Even if OWN’s ratings are now settling back down to earth, Winfrey and channel CEO Christina Norman touted what they called an “incredibly strong start overall.”

“My expectation was just getting people to find it,” Winfrey told reporters at OWN’s portion of the TV Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena on Thursday. “It surpassed expectations for me.”

Norman noted that 13 million viewers sampled OWN between the channel’s Saturday, Jan. 1, launch and Monday, Jan. 3. She said OWN is so far meeting its ratings target of regularly doubling the perf of channel predecessor Discovery Health. So far, according to Norman, OWN has moved from Discovery Health’s rank below the 40 top-rated basic cable nets to being ranked No. 17 in primetime and No. 24 in total day ratings.

Exec said OWN is also on track to achieve its goal of producing 600 hours of original fare and acquiring an additional 600 hours of programming by the end of 2011.

“Our responsibility is to keep people aware, and keeping people engaged in our channel, but we can do that,” Winfrey said. “Specifically because I believe that people want it.”

Winfrey said she wasn’t concerned about early ratings — and that she may even opt to keep low-rated programs on if she believes in them. It’s her channel, after all. “Obviously the ratings are important, numbers are important — not as important to me as they are to you,” Winfrey told scribes. “We know if we continue to build the channel with programming that’s meaningful to the viewers (they’ll come)… I’m grateful the first phase of what we wanted to accomplish actually happened. I’m grateful we weren’t embarrassed and that people came.”

She said she believed that even if OWN ultimately doesn’t work that it “was worth the risk.”

Winfrey briefly alluded to the early challenges in launching OWN, including the “people coming and going and then finding the right person for the right seat on the bus of OWN.”

But she spent most of her session describing her life’s journey, starting as a young girl in Mississippi whose grandmother’s biggest wish was that Winfrey find a nice white family to work for.”This has been a revelatory week for me,” she said. “It was not actually until we were on the air that I fully started to grasp what it means to have a network where you are the ‘OW’ of ‘OWN,’ and what that really means,” she said.

In its one new announcement Thursday, OWN picked up “Money Class,” hosted by financial adviser and TV personality Suze Orman. Series, which follows Orman as she helps families set financial goals, will air this fall.

Radical Media is behind the show; Orman already appears on OWN’s “Ask Oprah’s All Stars” and will be a guest judge on “Your OWN Show.”

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