OWN's Growing Pains Echo Past Oprah Winfrey Launch

Discovery Communications Might Recall Hearst's Struggle at Launching Talk-Show Diva's Magazine

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Oprah Winfrey's new cable channel seems like it's getting off to a rocky launch, but another prominent media property associated with the daytime-TV diva had its own difficult genesis nearly a decade ago.

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey Credit: Giulio Marcocchi
When Hearst Corp. launched "O the Oprah Magazine" in 2000, the media conglomerate had to work its way through a nontraditional command structure that raised eyebrows and generated tension while the glossy book was still in startup mode.

So longtime media watchers may be less surprised than one might think by some of the growing pains taking place as Discovery Communications works with Ms. Winfrey and staff to launch OWN, also known as the Oprah Winfrey Network. This embryonic cable channel's premise is to run programming that is in line with the positive messages espoused daily on Ms. Winfrey's longtime talk show.

Shuffling executive suite
Since OWN was announced in January 2008, however, the gestating cable outlet has experienced 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 named to head ad sales, and Lisa Erspamer, an executive from Ms. Winfrey's Harpo production company, was brought in as the channel's new chief creative officer. Former Viacom chief Tom Freston has consulted for the launch.

But despite the hires, Discovery has only managed to muster 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 recently said no final decision has been made about the launch date, which is slated to be announced before the end of the year.

But this muddled scenario seems to echo the first stirrings of "O" -- which, given all the strum and drang that took place around its birth, might have better been called "Oy!"

Much like the cable network, O the Oprah Magazine was devised as a joint venture between Hearst and Ms. Winfrey. As such, the title began with a nontraditional management plan. In addition to Ellen Kunes, who was the executive editor of the magazine's first three issues, then-Good Housekeeping editor Ellen Levine, who had a relationship with Ms. Winfrey, had a consulting role. What's more, Gayle King, a former Connecticut broadcast journalist who is better known as one of Ms. Winfrey's closest friends, was placed at the magazine to serve as a liaison to Ms. Winfrey.

At the time, the unorthodox masthead raised questions over how much access Ms. Kunes had to the celebrity. Indeed, Ms. Kunes would announce her decision to step down from "O" after only one issue had hit newsstands, and would leave after supervising just three issues.

In March 2000, Ms. Kunes told Dow Jones Newswires that "There's no question that I am the editor in chief of this magazine, and that I am, with Oprah, making the decisions about this." But she told the New York Daily News in June of that year she was leaving because "I felt someone who could be more involved on a day-to-day level would be better." In August, 2000, "O" publisher Alyce C. Alston would leave the magazine for a position at Fairchild Publications' fashion-oriented "W."

In spite of the executive grind, the first issue of "O" had a distribution of 1.5 million copies, 500,000 of them coming after a second press run. The magazine wooed more than 900,000 subscriptions during its launch phase.

Working with celeb brands
The parallels between "O" and OWN highlight the promise and pitfalls of working with celebrities. When media outlets launch properties that have a celebrity at its core, rather than a lifestyle or demographic focus, they must often prepare for a lot of bumps on the path. The former Gruner & Jahr USA experienced many difficulties when it recruited Rosie O'Donnell to help revamp venerable McCall's in 2002 into a magazine centered on Ms. O'Donnell's personality. And Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia experienced turbulence when its founder was investigated for allegations of insider trading and subsequently served prison time. And it's still a big question whether a cable network can be built around a single personality.

OWN is whetting the appetites of people who might advertise on it, but the nascent outlet will have challenges to overcome. While a celebrity can launch a magazine or a TV show, "no celebrity has ever branded a network," said Larry Novenstern, exec VP-director of national and local broadcast at Publicis Groupe's Optimedia. "She's not going to be on 24/7," he added. What kind of performance will the entire programming lineup be able to put on "when she's not on?" he asked.

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