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Oprah Winfrey gets OWN network

Channel will open for business in 2009

Oprah Winfrey is adding a major piece of real estate to her media empire, teaming with Discovery Communications to create an Oprah-branded TV net.

OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network will bow in the second half of 2009. OWN will take over the Discovery Health Channel distribution platform, which guarantees it a strong subscriber base of 67.7 million cable and satellite homes, according to Nielsen. Winfrey will be chair of the network.

Deal between Winfrey and Discovery was described as a “cashless transaction” for a 50-50 joint venture that will be considered an entity independent of other Discovery channel holdings. Winfrey will have full editorial control of OWN and oversee its programming, branding and creative thrust.

OWN will dive deeper into the lifestyle, self-help, entertainment and spiritual themes Winfrey mines on her daily show, which has been daytime’s top syndicated yakker for 20 years, and in her successful monthly magazine O: the Oprah Magazine, a joint venture with Hearst Magazines.

“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,” Winfrey said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. She said it’s too early in the process for her to discuss specific shows or programming ideas.

Winfrey said she would not be able to offer reruns of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on the channel because CBS TV Distribution has exclusive distribution rights to the series through May 2011.

But if she continues to produce and star in the series beyond that date, Winfrey said she’d get the right to funnel repeats to OWN. She added that she’ll have to make the decision to about whether to continue her show for the 2011-12 season and beyond by the end of this year. Her contract with CBS TV Distribution has a clause that allows her to opt out of the syndicated show in mid-2010.

Even if she can’t use “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on OWN, “I’ll still be the voice and brand of the network,” Winfrey promised.

David Zaslav, prexy-CEO of Discovery Communications, said OWN would draw on the resources of Discovery’s extensive library of programming from its 13 domestic cable networks as well as Winfrey’s Oprah.com website; O: the Oprah Magazine; her radio show “Oprah & Friends” for XM Radio; and her Harpo Prods. lineup of theatrical and TV movies.

Winfrey said, “Harpo will contribute programming for OWN, as well as for TV syndication and network primetime.”

Winfrey has dabbled in cabler ownership once before. She was one of the original investors in Geraldine Laybourne’s femme-centric Oxygen Media. But Winfrey said she bowed out of the Oxygen board of directors when she found that the programming “didn’t reflect my voice.”

Winfrey has cashed in her investment in Oxygen. NBC Universal bought the net late last year for $875 million.

Discovery will handle distribution and origination of the OWN channel. Discovery Health, which will cease to exist after OWN debuts, was launched as a themed spinoff of the mothership Discovery Channel in 1999.

Winfrey and Discovery are about to launch a search for a CEO to run the network. Zaslav said Discovery and Winfrey haven’t decided whether the network will be based in Chicago, home of Harpo Prods., or in Discovery’s home base of Silver Spring, Md.