Oprah Strikes Cable Deal With Discovery

OWN to Launch in 70 Million Homes in 2009

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- She has her own talk show, her own magazine, even her own YouTube channel, and coming in 2009, Oprah Winfrey will have her OWN cable network. Literally.
David Zaslav and Oprah Winfrey
David Zaslav and Oprah Winfrey Credit: George Burns

OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, is a joint venture with Discovery Communications that will launch in more than 70 million homes next year, taking the place of what is currently the Discovery Health Channel. The joint venture between Discovery and Harpo Productions also includes Oprah.com.

Fulfilling her dreams
"This is the fulfillment of yet another dream for me that I've had for quite a long time," Ms. Winfrey said in a conference call yesterday. Her desire to one day build her own cable network dates back to a journal entry dated May 24, 1992. "I had this vision of creating my own network using the platform of 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' and the platform we've created all these years to leverage into the kind of network that will inspire and entertain people to continue doing the same kind of work with issues on money and weight and health and spirit. ... We now have an opportunity to do that 24 hours a day on a platform that goes on forever."

Ms. Winfrey will serve as chairman of OWN. A search for a CEO to run the network will begin immediately.

David Zaslav, president-CEO of Discovery Communications, said the Oprah brand and message speak a lot to his company's mission statement and core values, as both are leaders in their respective categories in nonfiction entertainment. "The mission of OWN and the content itself is a lot like the content on Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. It has an authenticity that works all around the world."

The cable channel will launch in the second half of 2009 simultaneously on cable and high-definition. While no programming has been officially announced for the network, any airings of Ms. Winfrey's syndicated talk show "The Oprah Winfrey Show" will not be eligible to air until at least 2011, when her current contract with the show is scheduled to expire.

Previous cable foray
OWN is not Ms. Winfrey's first venture into cable TV. She was an early investor in the Oxygen Network at its launch in 2001, and contributed the one-hour "Oprah After the Show," an exclusive behind-the-scenes peek into her daily talk show. Ms. Winfrey cashed out her Oxygen investment in 2006 and removed her show along with it.

Oxygen, incidentally, has since been sold to NBC Universal, one of several major shake-ups on cable TV in recent months. Turner's 2006 acquisition of Court TV led to a complete rebranding of the network on Dec. 31, when it became TruTV. Two weeks ago, Landmark Communications announced it would make available for sale the Weather Channel, valued to be worth as much as $5 billion by SNL Kagan, with a likely programming change to accompany its inevitable media acquisition.

Thomas Eagan, a New York-based cable analyst, said the recent trend of major entertainment companies repurposing their cable networks to better monetize their content is likely to continue as the integration of digital content becomes more crucial. In the case of Discovery, he added, "It allows them to monetize the platform they've created for Discovery Health. There's such a proliferation for subject-specific networks, this allows them to monetize it and brand it. It could be that they're able to repurpose some of that content elsewhere."

International clout
The OWN channel, meanwhile, could give Discovery even bigger clout internationally. "The Oprah brand has global appeal ... and clearly there's interest in U.S. programming abroad," Mr. Eagan said. "What we're seeing is the U.K. is one of the most competitive markets out there, so companies like BSkyB and Merchant Media might be looking to add U.S. content to their distribution."

The OWN announcement coincides with Mr. Zaslav's recent intentions to take the Discovery brand public this year. Due to legal restrictions, he could not elaborate on those plans in today's conference call. Instead, he said, "If you take all the fantastic resources of Discovery and put them behind a brand, we can have a very strong voice in the marketplace and can entertain and engage people in a meaningful way."
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