CEO At Oprah Network Departs, As Queen of Talk Readies More Involved Role

Christina Norman is Out, Peter Liguori Steps in on Interim Basis

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Discovery Communications moved to assert itself further over the Oprah Winfrey Network Friday by replacing its current CEO, former MTV executive Christina Norman, with Peter Liguori, its chief operating officer.

Discovery has made a big bet on OWN, gambling that TV viewers might be in the market for more of Ms. Winfrey's inspirational chit-chat and celebrity interviews. After investing $189 million, the company said in February it would sweeten that pot with another $50 million, a nod to the necessity of original programming to woo more viewers to OWN's air. More recently, Discovery CEO David Zaslav said the company would make a further investment in programming, though he did not offer a specific amount.

At the OWN launch toast in January: Christina Norman, Oprah Winfrey, David Zaslav, president and CEO, Discovery Communications
At the OWN launch toast in January: Christina Norman, Oprah Winfrey, David Zaslav, president and CEO, Discovery Communications Credit: OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network

Yet ratings at the fledgling outlet, aimed at espousing Ms. Winfrey's brand of living life to its fullest, have disappointed, and OWN has struggled to find a breakout hit and a dedicated audience in its first few months. During the first quarter of 2011, the network ranked No. 45 among all cable networks in total viewers and adults 18 to 49, trailing mid-tier competitors like WeTV and Oxygen as well as Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network. OWN's Sunday-night programming lineup has showed signs of life through the network's top-rated program, "Season 25: Oprah Behind The Scenes," and 6-part reality series "The Judds," which finished its first season last Sunday with 502,000 total viewers.

At present, OWN's top-rated program is a behind-the-scenes look at the last season of Ms. Winfrey's talk show, a signal that viewers may not be as rabidly interested in content that does not feature the popular talk-show host. Her syndicated daytime talk show is slated to end later this month, whereupon she is expected to take up more responsibility at the cable outlet.

OWN is preparing to launch a new version of comedienne Rosie O' Donnell's daytime talk show, as well as series featuring Sarah Ferguson and Shania Twain. Another highly-anticipated series, "Oprah's Next Chapter," will debut in early 2012 and is expected to follow Ms. Winfrey on a series of international excursions with occasional celebrity guests.

Mr. Liguori is expected to remain interim CEO through at least the fall, with Ms. Winfrey expected to take on a more hands-on role after the last episode of her syndicated daytime talk show tapes this month.

Ms. Norman's departure is the latest in a long string of executive departures from the network, including original general manager Robin Schwartz, former programming chief Jamila Hunter, digital chief Robert Tercek and chief marketing officer Liz Dolan. The churn does not lend an air of stability to the joint-venture between Discovery and Ms. Wifnrey's Harpo production company, but it is in keeping with the way the popular talk-show host has launched other ventures, such as O Magazine.

The decision to replace Ms. Norman was made by OWN's board over the last few weeks, a spokeswoman for the channel said. A Discovery Communications spokeswoman declined to comment, referring an inquiry to OWN.

"This is a natural point of transition," Ms. Winfrey said in a statement, "and I am confident that Peter, as an integral part of the launch of OWN, will be a terrific partner for me going forward. He is one of the smartest, most creative executives in media, and I look forward to his leadership as we build our development slate." She and Mr. Liguori will "work together to recruit a permanent CEO for OWN's next phase of growth" over the rest of 2011, she said.

In a statement, Ms. Norman did not specify what she will do next.

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