Harpo Has Big Plans

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By naming a new development unit last week Harpo Productions is bidding to become a much more prominent television production company than it’s been so far.

Harpo, of course is Oprah spelled backward, and is best known for The Oprah Winfrey Show and ancillary businesses. Last week, Harpo named Winfrey’s current executive producer, Ellen Rakieten, and Harriet Seitler, Harpo’s director of creative service and program development,  to head the new development business.

Part of the plan may be to eventually find the next TV chapter for Winfrey, who's under contract until 2011.

"As far as daytime is concerned, Oprah has been in that early fringe slot for 20 years," says Tim Bennett, president of Harpo Productions. "I don’t think Oprah is going to relinquish her [role] in daytime in the next decade. She’s going to be around a lot longer."

Now, though, she may want to program more of it.

The new development unit may have something ready for syndication by the middle of 2007, Bennett says, but Bennett, Rakieten and Seitler make it clear that while syndication keeps the lights on at their Chicago headquarters, Harpo wants to shine their light all over the television landscape.

Shari Salata was named the new executive producer and Lisa Erspamer the new co-executive producer for Winfrey’s talk show ,which debuts its new season today.

Winfrey successfully developed Dr. Phil and today unveils its new Rachael Ray talker, produced with Scripps Networks, in syndication. Winfrey has a branded series of ABC movies and her Legends prime time special drew big numbers.

"We developed these things with kind of one hand tied behind our back because our focus was really on doing the (Winfrey) show," says Bennett. Forming a separate unit lets Harpo concentrate more on new projects.

"Clearly the stuff we do with our eyes closed every day is the best show in syndication," Seitler says, "so [syndication] is a very natural way for us to grow. But we think we have opportunities in every medium."

Rakieten added: "There will be lots to come from this announcement. We are in the planning stages" for developing programming for 2007.

Bennett says he likes using Winfrey’s show as a "booster rocket" for launching new syndication stars, as it did with Dr. Phil McGraw and hopes to do with Rachael Ray.

Speaking of syndication, he said, "It is a gand slam home run. First run syndication allows you to come out of the box and literally make the kind of money other people in scripted series are hoping to get after they make 100 shows. Syndication lets you get into that economic model instantly."

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