Oprah Winfrey Network ready to start
It happened in its OWN time.
After three years of planning, delays and management misfires, OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network finally arrives Jan.1, the biggest launch of a cable channel in more than a decade.
Wall Street and the television industry are eager to see whether the celebrity who can unleash consumer trends can leverage the success of her 25-year run in daytime television into a 24-hour cable channel. The new channel is a mix of programming that encourages people to "live their best lives" with the empowerment message that is the Oprah Winfrey brand.
If viewers can only find the message. Winfrey's network will mostly reside on channels above 200, taking over the position of Discovery Communications Inc.'s Discovery Health Channel. Even in the digital age, that's a handicap — the higher the number, the less likely viewers will stumble across the programming as they switch among the more heavily watched channels lower in the lineup.
OWN also will be competing against several other entrenched cable networks aimed at the same female audience. Still, backers believe Winfrey's emphasis on positive and optimistic programming is unique among cable networks that appeal to women. Moreover, when it comes to brand awareness, it doesn't get more prominent than Winfrey, whose daily talk show is watched by 7 million people.
"There is no network that has ever launched in 80 million homes and with the advantage of the best brand in media, which is Oprah, and a website which is the No. 2 or No. 3 website for women," said David Zaslav, chief executive of Discovery Communications, which owns 50 percent of OWN.
"It will be a historic launch, in terms of the reach and power," he said.
For now, however, Winfrey is still immersed in her longtime Chicago-based syndicated talk show. She will tape her last episode in May — five months after OWN premieres — and episodes will run through Sept. 9.
Winfrey's reluctance to loosen her grip on her daytime show has been a source of frustration for Discovery, which has spent $110 million of a budgeted $189 million on startup costs. Even as recently as 18 months ago — long after plans for OWN had been announced — Winfrey was undecided about whether she would end her daytime show to concentrate on the cable channel.
Her program, Winfrey said in a telephone interview, remains her "full-time job" while it is in production.
"I've built (OWN) with only 10 percent of my time, but I have surrounded myself with good people," Winfrey said. "And when I am able to focus my full gaze on it, the network is only going to get better."
Winfrey and her partners recognize that, unlike a new movie or TV show that must produce immediate results, it probably will take several years for OWN to establish itself. They say they are prepared to stick it out.
"A lot of the programming will resonate; some of it won't," Zaslav said. "We recognize it's going to take awhile to find a voice. But we have an advantage because we know what the voice is going to be."
Those hoping to see Winfrey reprise her signature daily show will be disappointed.
Although she will be part of the promotional on-air blitz and will host a few programs, the first month will rely heavily on TV celebrities that her production company has groomed — including relationship expert Phil McGraw and surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz. They all will appear along with financial guru Suze Orman. Winfrey's friend Gayle King will host a daily talk show, and therapist Laura Berman will give sex advice.
OWN is also jumping on the country's obsession with talent shows: Ten people will compete for the chance to have their own show on "Oprah's Search for the Next TV Star: Your OWN Show."
Other program highlights include multipart specials about women in prison, "Breaking Down the Bars," a topic that has always intrigued Winfrey, and documentaries on Sarah Ferguson, the duchess of York, and country singer Shania Twain.
Winfrey will appear in "Behind the Scenes: The Oprah Show Final Season" and "Oprah Presents Master Class," in which she interviews such luminaries as Maya Angelou, Diane Sawyer, Simon Cowell, Jay-Z and Condoleezza Rice. Winfrey agreed to increase her on-air presence last summer, at Discovery's request, when it nearly doubled its funding commitment.
"We are getting a lot of Oprah's energy and her creative vision, and that's one of the best assets we could have," Zaslav said.
OWN will be competing with at least a dozen channels that target women, including Lifetime, Oxygen (a channel Winfrey helped start that later was sold to NBC Universal), ABC Family, WE, Bravo, Food Network, Home & Garden TV and TLC, the last also owned by Discovery.
"Who isn't the competition?" Norman asked. "Everyone is fair game."
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