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Oprah Winfrey Network slow to get off the ground

More than 20 months after the announcement that she was teaming up with Discovery Communications to create a new cable channel, not much has happened -- except for a revolving door of executives.

August 27, 2009|Meg James

The Oprah Winfrey Network seems to have everything needed to succeed: some of the best creative minds in the business, strong financial backing, a loyal audience and enthusiastic advertisers eager to buy commercial time.

But more than 20 months after the announcement that Winfrey was teaming with Discovery Communications Inc. to create a cable channel that celebrates her ethos, "Living your best life," not much has happened -- except for a revolving door of executives.

Three top programmers abruptly left the Los Angeles-based network in recent months, and development spending has been cut. OWN was supposed to have launched by now, but its debut has been pushed back to mid-2010.

Executives declined to provide a new target date.

"It's kind of like the Death Star over there -- not a lot is coming out," said Brent Poer, managing director of the West Coast offices of the ad-buying firm MediaVest. "This is a signal that they are trying to decide who they are."

This is not the first time Winfrey has been part of a high-profile cable channel, and the last one -- Oxygen, launched in 1999 -- failed to live up to expectations. It was slow to get distribution over cable and then struggled as an independent competing against media giants with deep pockets.

Winfrey eventually distanced herself from Oxygen, calling the channel a disappointment, in part because "it did not reflect my voice." The channel is now owned by NBC Universal.

Winfrey's new venture doesn't lack for strong voices. One is David Zaslav, the hard-charging chief executive of Discovery Communications, who has been shaking up the onetime sleepy company since he arrived from NBC in 2007. Another is Tom Freston, the architect of MTV and former chief executive of Viacom Inc., who was recruited to OWN more than a year ago as a consultant and is considered internally to be the resident sage.

Freston was instrumental in hiring Christina Norman, the driven former president of Viacom's VH-1 and MTV, who became chief executive of OWN in February. The management group decided that it needed someone with experience running the cable channel.

Norman wanted her own team. In April, the channel's president, Robin Schwartz, abruptly resigned. Schwartz was one of the channel's first employees, hired in 2008 after making such a powerful presentation about the types of uplifting programs that she would develop for OWN that it brought tears to Winfrey's eyes.

In recent weeks, two other proven programmers, Maria Grasso and Nina Wass, have left.

"It's kind of surprising to have Oprah Winfrey and the Discovery Networks, two very well-respected and reputable companies, experience this much upheaval before they even go on the air," said Brad Adgate, programming director with the ad firm Horizon Media.

Channel managers describe the fits and starts as growing pains of a new venture.

In an interview, Norman said her team had spent the last few months examining their strategy, the mix of programs in development and the marketing messages. Norman acknowledged that she reined in spending at the channel, but said it simply made sense to tamp down the expenditures until closer to the launch. One person said she put a ban on frequent cake splurges.

In late July, the management group -- including Winfrey, who is chairman of OWN; Zaslav; Freston; Norman; and the newly hired programmer, Jamila Hunter -- spent an intense day at OWN's new offices on Wilshire Boulevard making "a deep dive" into the channel's DNA.

"We talked a lot about what we are trying to create here, and how do we wrestle it to the ground," Norman said. "We started to see a big thread emerge and decided that we should be telling the stories of life, the things that matter to us -- the love stories, the work stories and all the things that make up real life."

The channel plans to diversify beyond reality shows by acquiring documentaries. And it is still trying to figure out how to best involve Winfrey, especially after she is expected to end her syndicated daytime show in May 2011.

"We are going to do a ton of specials and find unique ways for Oprah to be involved," Norman said.

She acknowledged that the stakes were high because so many reputations were riding on the channel's success.

"Of course there is pressure and it might make you a little bit afraid to jump in, but we've all said, 'Let's go,' " Norman said.

She added that this fall there would be announcements about programs and a channel launch date.

MediaVest's Poer said he understood why the channel was taking its time.

"It doesn't make sense to rush it," Poer said. "And long term this is a smarter play. The worst thing that could happen would be to show everyone the baby, and then everyone says, 'Oooh, the baby's ugly.' What they are simply saying is, 'Let's don't give birth yet.' "

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meg.james@latimes.com

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