The pressure is on Oprah

What's next for brand new cabler OWN?

In the wake of Friday’s shakeup, what’s next for brand new cabler OWN?

On Friday, Discovery Communications and Oprah Winfrey announced that Christina Norman had been replaced as CEO by the parent company’s chief operating officer, Peter Liguori.

It’s not the first time an OWN topper has unceremoniously departed, though the net hasn’t even been on the air six months — Robin Schwartz ankled during the net’s gestation phase in April 2009 after less than a year as president (OWN hired Norman as chief exec six months after Schwartz was appointed prexy).

Liguori’s appointment as interim net topper raises a few questions: Who will Discovery (and Winfrey) pick to replace Norman? Will that person be able to turn the net around? And why does OWN seem to want to succeed on a months-long timetable, when many new networks take years?

All is not well at the fledgling cabler — Discovery topper David Zaslav admitted disappointment in the net’s ratings performance last week during the org’s earnings call.

“The ratings are below our expectations, but we are digging in,” Zaslav said. “This is a long-term play.” Yet OWN just began broadcasting on New Year’s Day. Part of the anxiety may have to do with expense: Through the first quarter of 2011, the channel set Discovery back $215 million, including $57 million invested in the net during the first quarter alone.

For those same three months, net saw an average of 309,000 total viewers in primetime, up just 21% from the same quarter last year on Discovery Health, the net OWN replaced. The net’s average total day numbers are around 150,000. Meanwhile, Discovery has more than doubled the net’s sub fees from Discovery Health, to about 20¢ per cable customer.

“Behind closed doors, people aren’t happy with it,” said one industry insider.

How long is too long to wait for a network to find its feet? Few execs would answer “five months.” Another Oprah cable venture, Oxygen, was launched in 2000 and took years to grow; News Corp.’s Fox Business Network began broadcasting in 2007 and wasn’t even Nielsen rated until March. When questioned about the slow ratings build, execs from both nets said at the time that cablers need careful attention over a long period of time to build a viewership base.

Liguori, whose institutional focus has been Discovery’s joint ventures, has two other young networks to parent: Discovery/Hasbro kidnet the Hub and the even more ambitious 3D cabler 3Net, a Discovery/Sony/Imax partnership. Since both of those projects will continue to require careful handling, it’s unlikely Liguori will stay in the CEO position at OWN for longer than he has to, though Winfrey said in a release that “over the remainder of the year, Peter and I will work together to recruit a permanent CEO for OWN’s next phase of growth.”

“We want to see the network obviously pump up the ratings, but do it in an Oprah way — that’s really the goal,” Liguori told Variety. “We learned a lot from the first 16 or 17 weeks. My job is to put all of that learning to use. … We’ve already asked, ‘What works on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show?’ Then I’m changing the filter to say ‘What are they going to watch besides ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show.’ And on top of that we know what OWN’s audience is watching. So we’ve triple-distilled our point of view.”

Winfrey has rekindled conversations with some of the original candidates for the top OWN job, who turned the position down at the time. Speculation that Norman would be succeeded by Judy McGrath, who last week departed as MTV Networks chairman-CEO, has been tamped by insiders.

Other candidates include former MTV Networks exec John Sykes, who did not want to relocate to California from New York but has a tight relationship with Winfrey’s outside consultant, former Viacom CEO Tom Freston; and Nancy Dubuc, prexy-g.m. of the History and Lifetime Networks, who was also under contract.

All three are on Winfrey’s radar again, according to industryites. Sykes and McGrath declined comment, but a rep for Lifetime and History parent company AETN said Dubuc had recently renewed her contract and was very unlikely to take the job.

“I want to thank Christina for her important accomplishments, incredible passion and many sacrifices in helping to launch the network,” Winfrey said in a release. “With the final taping of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ only a few weeks away, I will soon be able to devote my full energies to OWN. This is a natural point of transition, and I am confident that Peter, as an integral part of the launch of OWN, will be a terrific partner for me going forward.”Winfrey is set to take a more active role in the network’s programming — the net will air refurbished segs of her syndie show under the title “Oprah Encore,” along with 60 new episodes.