David Zaslav, CEO of Discovery Communications, kick-started the rumors the morning of Nov. 7 in a third-quarter earnings call with investors, when he said of Ms. Winfrey and the new network, "The expectation is ... that her show will go off of ABC in syndication [in September of 2011], and she will come to OWN."
The comment prompted Lisa Halliday, chief spokesperson for Harpo Inc., parent company of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," to issue a statement to Broadcasting & Cable. "While David Zaslav's comments are true that Oprah's current contract to produce 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' will expire in 2011, she has not made a final decision as to whether she will continue her show in syndication beyond that," she said.
As Discovery and Harpo negotiate the terms of bringing Ms. Winfrey's tentpole program to cable, there's no question having the "Oprah" show would be a cash coup for the company. The syndicated show grossed $158.9 million in ad revenue in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence; in comparison, the fully distributed Discovery network Animal Planet earned $223.6 million in ad dollars across its entire programming schedule for 2007. Overall ad revenue for Discovery networks in third quarter was up 5% to $249 million, so having an incremental $40 million from a hit like "Oprah" would mean quarterly increases well into the double digits.
When OWN launches next year, it will take the place of Discovery Health, a network currently in 70 million homes. Although Mr. Zaslav described it as "a profitable network as we speak," there's seemingly little doubt that having Ms. Winfrey's name attached to an entire channel, not to mention the inheritance of Oprah.com under the Discovery umbrella, will bring in a whole new set of viewers.
OWN has been on a hiring spree as the late-2009 launch date approaches, bringing in Robin Schwartz in June as its president, and in the past two weeks, former Lifetime exec Maria Grasso as its senior VP-programming and ex-MTV creative director Robert Tercek as its president of digital media.