January 16, 2008 12:22 am

Oprah’s empire to gain cable network

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Oprah Winfrey continued her ascent from entertainer to entertainment mogul with the announcement on Tuesday that she is joining forces with Discovery Communications to launch a self-branded cable network.

The Oprah Winfrey Network will debut in the second-half of 2009 in more than 70m US homes, expanding a media platform that the talk show host has used to endorse everything from books and charities to Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

Ms Winfrey said the latest venture fulfilled a goal she had written in her personal diary 15 years ago to own a network that would create “mindful, not mindless, television”.

For Discovery, the deal represents the media company’s continuing transformation under David Zaslav.

Since taking over as chief executive a little more than a year ago, Mr Zaslav has made it a priority to refocus some of Discovery’s 13 US cable networks, which enjoy wide distribution but do not necessarily draw strong ratings.

OWN will replace the Discovery Health Channel, which currently earns minimal fees from cable operators. The deal, which is a 50-50 partnership between Discovery and Ms Winfrey’s privately held Harpo Productions, also includes the Oprah.com website.

“This is a big leap for Discovery,” Mr Zaslav said.

One thing OWN will lack, at least at the outset, is Ms Winfrey’s top-rated daytime talk show, which is under contract to local stations until 2011. Ms Winfrey said she would fulfil that contract, and argued that it would not hinder the new network’s development. “This network isn’t just about me. It’s about the voice and the brand and the vision,” she said.

Ms Winfrey launched her business career after deciding in the 1980s to own her daytime television programme as opposed to working as a contract employee.

She has since launched a best-selling magazine in partnership with Hearst, signed a $55m contract with XM Satellite Radio and nurtured other television stars. She is also one of the US’ best-known philanthropists.

“Oprah is not really a personality, she’s an institution,” said Shaheed Khan, a media analyst at IBB Consulting.

One venture that failed to live up to expectations was Ms Winfrey’s foray into cable television after she co-founded Oxygen Media in 1998. The women’s-oriented network lacked the marketing muscle of a larger corporate parent and drew weak ratings. It was sold in October for $925m to NBC Universal which is stitching together its own collection of female-oriented media properties.

“I would have to say that channel did not reflect my voice,” Ms Winfrey said on Tuesday, noting she had not been in charge of Oxygen’s programming. With OWN, she will serve as chairman and have full control over the network’s editorial and creative development.

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