CBS CEO Moonves: In 'Constant Conversations' With Oprah

Will Talk-Show Queen Stay in Syndication or Go to OWN Network?

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NEW YORK ( -- CBS Corp.'s top executive said the company is "in dialogue" with daytime-TV queen Oprah Winfrey about the status of her long-running syndicated program, amidst speculation that the talk-show host could move her show to a cable start-up she has been working on with Discovery Communications.

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey Credit: Harpo Productions, Inc.
"We are in constant conversations with Oprah. She's a legend and one of the greatest assets we have," said Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp.'s CEO, during a Thursday conference call with investors. The company's syndication arm distributes Ms. Winfrey's program to TV stations across the nation, including a large group of ABC-owned local outlets.

Mr. Moonves said Ms. Winfrey's contract with CBS ran through "most of 2011" and that "if there is a negative impact, it wouldn't hit us until 2012, and that's sort of where we are, and we are in dialogue."

The end of Ms. Winfrey's current CBS contract, which has been known for some time, adds just one more wrinkle in Discovery's efforts to launch a cable channel with Ms. Winfrey as its creative muse and founding concept.

Since the Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN as it has come to be called, was announced in January, 2008, the would-be cable outlet has seen several shuffles in its executive suite, including the departure of general manager Robin Schwartz after little more than a year. Former MTV executive Christina Norman joined earlier this year as CEO. More recently, OWN hired NBC's Jamila Hunter to run programming.

Discovery ad-sales executive Kathy Kayse was recently named to head ad sales and Harpo's Lisa Erspamer has been brought in as the new chief creative officer.

Despite all the drama, Discovery has only mustered a highlight reel naming potential program concepts, made during its spring upfront presentation to advertisers. The network's launch date has also been a moving target -- initially set for fourth-quarter 2009, then pushed back until summer 2010. Now reports are putting that date closer to early 2011 to accommodate a possible acquisition of "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

An OWN spokeswoman said no final decision has been made about either the show or the launch date, but both will be announced before the end of the year.

The sticky situation gained new attention after the blog raised new speculation that Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav was pressuring Ms. Winfrey to move the show to his channel to ensure a more secure launch.

Discovery Communications declined to comment on the report. A spokesperson for Ms. Winfrey's Harpo production studio said the host had not announced any plans yet but would do so before year-end.

In a November conference with investors, Mr. Zaslav said Ms. Winfrey "is committed to 2011 and she is going to make a decision as to what happens to it after that."

Advertisers spent approximately $198.6 million in the first eight months of 2009 on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" or on local stations when they aired the programs, according to TNS Media Intelligence. They spent $147.1 million during the same period in 2008, according to TNS.

A spokesperson for CBS Television Distribution said, "Nothing has changed. The decision is Oprah's to make. As we have stated repeatedly, we love Oprah and if she wants to continue her show then we want to continue to be in business with her."

Meanwhile, CBS said today that "Dr. Phil," featuring a counselor whose rise to fame started on Ms. Winfrey's program, has been renewed through the 2013-2014 season in 70% of U.S., including 20 of the nation's top 25 markets.

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