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 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 on the lineup.
OWN will also 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 viewers.
“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, and with only 11 days to go before launch, 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— for episodes that will run through Sept. 9, when the program takes its final bow.
Last week, instead of being holed up at OWN’s headquarters on the Miracle Mile stretch of Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, prepping for the launch, Winfrey was traveling with 302 fans in Australia and shooting upcoming episodes of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Indeed, Winfrey’s reluctance to loosen her grip on her daytime show has been a source of frustration for Discovery, which so far has spent $110 million out of a budgeted $189 million on start-up 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 a while to find a voice. But we have an advantage because we know what the voice is going to be.”
For two and a half years, executives at OWN have labored to line up programming that meets Winfrey’s notoriously demanding standards.
The channel is already on its second management regime. The first team was shown the door within the first year. Former MTV President Christina Norman was brought in as CEO in February 2009. Meanwhile, in the background has been Tom Freston, the architect of MTV and former head of Viacom Inc., advising on programming and strategy.
Still, OWN’s program development lacked cohesion until a year ago, when Winfrey dispatched Lisa Erspamer, an executive producer of her daytime show, to Los Angeles. With Erspamer, the network finally had someone on hand who understood Winfrey’s programming sensibilities.
“I wouldn’t say we were casting about, groping around for programming, but we didn’t have Oprah’s DNA yet,” Norman said. “I didn’t know her; most people here don’t know her.”
Erspamer arrived in January bearing the title chief creative officer, and things kicked into gear. “We’ve just been on a runaway whirlwind of making programming ever since,” Norman said.
For Discovery, forward motion couldn’t have come soon enough.
The channel, unveiled in January 2008, was scheduled to launch in the fall of 2009 but was postponed to 2010, then 2011. Costs climbed. In August, the company increased its financial commitment to $189 million from $100 million.
Discovery hoped Winfrey’s persona would be enough reason to raise fees that it charges cable operators for programming. So far, that hasn’t happened. Discovery receives about 7 cents per subscriber per month for Discovery Health, and had planned to charge as much as 40 cents per subscriber, according to Miller Tabak & Co. analyst David Joyce.
But Discovery was forced to scale back its price to about 20 cents per subscriber, Joyce said, while most operators wait to see evidence that the channel is winning over viewers before negotiating new rates.
And those hoping to see Winfrey reprise her signature daily show will be disappointed.
Although Winfrey will be part of the promotional on-air blitz and 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 multi-part 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 Discovery nearly doubled the size of 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 launch 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.”
The channel should generate $352 million in revenue next year, operating “just under break even,” according to analyst Joyce. He figured the channel would spend $176 million for programming — the network is planning 600 hours of original programming in its first year — and nearly $200 million is needed to cover other operating expenses.
“I spent a lot of time trying to decide whether to go forward with this, and once I made the decision, then I was in. I am committed for the long haul,” Winfrey said. “This network is going to work. I know what people want.”