Oprah sets date for OWN launch

TV titan targets January 2011 for network debut

Oprah Winfrey has set the date.

A day after the daytime TV titan announced plans to end her syndie yakker after the 2010-11 season, Winfrey confirmed that she is targeting a January 2011 launch for OWN — the Oprah Winfrey Network.

The January 2011 date had been expected in recent weeks, but Discovery Communications — Winfrey’s partner in the joint venture — waited for her Thursday announcement before making it official.

Winfrey’s decision to end her show and focus her energies on OWN reps a significant shot in the arm for the channel, which up until now has been plagued by executive shuffles, early programming missteps and a delayed launch date.

Winfrey and Discovery unveiled their partnership in early 2008 as a replacement for Discovery Health.

OWN was targeted for launch by the end of 2009 or start of 2010, but that date has been pushed in the wake of changes in programming and executive structure.

In a statement on the preem date, OWN CEO Christina Norman called Winfrey “the life force” behind the cabler’s programming. In announcing her plan on Friday’s edition of “Oprah” to exit after next season, the host did not mention the cabler.

The delay means Discovery’s other recently announced cable joint venture — with Hasbro, to replace Discovery Kids — will likely bow first (in late 2010).

OWN’s January 2011 launch date ensures that the channel will get a heap of publicity on Winfrey’s top-rated talker during her farewell season, which will wrap in May 2011 (although stations will continue to run it through that September).

Originally, Robin Schwartz was hired in June 2008 as OWN president; at the time it wasn’t clear whether the channel would hire a channel topper above her as well.

That changed in January, when Winfrey and Discovery tapped former MTV exec Norman as CEO.

Norman’s arrival set up a change in direction — as well as some redundancies, as she assumed responsibilities that had been handled by Schwartz.

It became apparent that change was afoot as Norman changed the channel’s programming direction. Schwartz hailed from the scripted world, as did her two top hires — creative affairs senior VP Nina Wass and programming senior VP Maria Grasso — an unusual mix for a network that would rely on unscripted originals.

By April, Schwartz had departed after less than a year. Norman replaced her with former NBC exec Jamila Hunter, who as head of programming came to OWN with an unscripted background — more in line with the channel’s focus.

Wass and Grasso were also gone before the end of the summer.

Despite those changes OWN execs said its initial programming slate, first announced at Discovery’s spring upfront presentation, is still in place. That lineup includes “Master Class,” hosted by Winfrey, who plans to interview notable newsmakers and stars (names mentioned included Jerry Seinfeld and Sidney Poitier).

Celebs are also a part of Katalyst’s “Excellent Adventure,” in which they embark on a life-changing trip.

Other previously announced OWN series include the newsmag “Lisa Ling Investigates” and a docusoap titled “Surfer’s Healing.” Several “Oprah” show regulars and hosts from Winfrey’s SiriusXM satellite radio channel are also lined up for shows, including clutter buster Peter Walsh and relationship expert Laura Berman.

Those and other shows on the initial OWN slate were heavy on feel-good, life-empowerment fare — topics that have been synonymous with Winfrey’s brand. At OWN’s upfront presentation, Norman stressed the channel’s three themes: “Best Life All-Stars,” “Best Life Experiences” and “Best Life Inspiration.”

But industry observers have also expressed concern that while well intentioned, that mix of soul-affirming programming isn’t a recipe for hefty viewership.

As a matter of fact, OWN’s original programming slate looked a lot like the original vision for Oxygen, back when Geraldine Laybourne, Carsey-Werner and Winfrey partnered in 1998 to launch that channel.

Winfrey later departed, and Oxygen didn’t really take off until it moved away from empowerment fare and started programming a more mainstream mix of reality shows and acquired series and movies.

OWN plans to unveil a programming slate in the early part of 2010 — and the channel still has 13 months to get its 24-hour schedule right.

The Winfrey announcement will bolster that, as OWN will soon be the chief outlet for viewers to find original Oprah fare.

OWN has not yet confirmed what Winfrey’s programming output will be, but it’s understood that she will have a regular series and host specials.

OWN will also have a huge advantage in being able to use Winfrey’s library of 25 years’ worth of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” episodes — which Oxygen tried and failed to secure. Winfrey instead produced “After the Show” for that channel — bonus footage taken from tapings of “Oprah,” but not the show itself.

Winfrey has been very protective of that valuable library, but probably assumes the time is right to finally capitalize on her archives, which includes countless episodes featuring her sitdowns with celebrities, politicians and newsmakers.

“Oprah” repeats will be available to OWN in September 2011, as soon as Winfrey says goodbye to broadcast syndication.