Oprah, Discovery Team Up on New Network

OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network to Replace Discovery Health Channel, Debut in 2009 1/15/2008 01:40:00 PM Eastern

Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications will partner on a new network with Winfrey’s brand of feel-good empowerment, which will replace Discovery Health Channel, the companies announced Tuesday.

David Zaslav and Oprah Winfrey

OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network is scheduled to bow in 2009 with the distribution muscle of Discovery Health’s 70 million homes. The new network will also include, Winfrey’s popular Web site.

Since David Zaslav took over as CEO of Discovery one year ago, he has significantly altered the programmer’s portfolio of networks, including relaunching Discovery Home as eco-themed Planet Green and starting a new crime and investigations channel, Investigation Discovery.

He has also trimmed some 26% of the company’s work force; closed its retail stores; and spearheaded a move to take the company public. In December, John Malone’s Discovery Holding and Advance/Newhouse Communications said they will combine their stakes in a deal to create a new holding company for the media conglomerate.

Most if not all Discovery Health programming will be scrapped when OWN debuts. In its place will be empowerment-themed programming that Winfrey said “will inspire and entertain people.”

Winfrey will serve as chairman of OWN and have full editorial control of the venture. The venture is a 50-50 split between Discovery and Winfrey’s Harpo Productions.

The network’s first order or business will be finding a CEO to run it, after which they will determine where OWN will be based -- most likely in Chicago, where Harpo is based, or in Silver Spring, Md., where Discovery is headquartered.

The new Oprah network, while starting with near full cable distribution, will have to bank on the name-recognition of its chief, and some big marketing, to make a splash -- not many viewers regularly turn to Discovery Health on the cable dial.

The wellness-focused audience right now is tiny -- on average only 60,000 viewers in total-day viewing during 2007, and that was down 6% over last year. By comparison, Lifetime Television averaged 590,000 viewers during 2007 (down 6% from 2006) and Oxygen averaged 653,000 (up 4% over 2006).

Unlike with Oxygen Media -- where Winfrey served as a board member and which NBC Universal recently purchased for $875 million -- Winfrey said she will have control over every piece of programming that ends up on the new network.

She was disappointed that Oxygen “did not reflect my voice,” but she declined to name specifics on which parts of Oxygen’s programming she took issue with. “Here I have editorial control, and there is a vision I want to accomplish with this network,” Winfrey said.

Discovery and Winfrey provided little on specifics with regards to programming on the network, although Winfrey said she wanted to produce “the kinds of shows that make my heart sing” and “mindful, not mindless television. This is the place I want to go if I want to feel better about myself, my life.”

Oprah’s signature talk show is contractually locked up through 2011, although negotiations are set to begin in the fall that could result in the show finding its way to the new network when the current deal expires.

In describing the network, Zaslav said it fit in with Discovery’s mission to focus on its brands’ devotion to knowledge-seeking, rather than on ratings, although the network will be an ad-supported traditional basic-cable network.

Zaslav echoed Winfrey’s sentiments with the programming, saying that Discovery wanted to “create quality content that empowers and helps people to live their best lives.”

The network will stand in direct competition to Oxygen, leveraging the power of Winfrey’s already-established to become a powerful multimedia women-targeted brand.

Zaslav said he had already been in talks with cable operators about the network and Winfrey’s coming to cable created value for the cable industry as a whole.

Winfrey now joins a list of several broadcast-TV personalities who have found second lives in cable, including Dan Rather, who joined HDNet, and Ted Koppel, who has produced specials for Discovery.

"15 years ago, I wrote in my journal that one day I would create a television network, as I always felt my show was just the beginning of what the future could hold," Winfrey said in a statement. "For me, the launch of 'The Oprah Winfrey Network' is the evolution of the work I've been doing on television all of these years and a natural extension of my show."

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