News

A SIT-DOWN WITH OPRAH’S CEO

3/22/2010 6:32 AM Eastern

Ten months before the muchanticipated launch of Oprah Winfrey Network, CEO Christina Norman is opening up.

OWN, the basic-cable network
co-owned by Discovery Communications
and Oprah Winfrey, is on track
to supplant the Discovery Health
Channel next January with programming
that will look to inspire and
embolden the lives of its viewers,
much as Winfrey’s popular syndicated
daytime talk show The Oprah Winfrey
Show has done over the past 25 years.

Among the new series already announced:
a behind-the-scenes look at
the final season of The Oprah Winfrey
Show; and a Documentary Film Club
series which will feature inspiring and
encouraging documentary films, including
2010 Sundance Film Festival
entry Family Affair.

Other new shows on the network’s
docket
include: The
Peter Walsh
Project,
featuring
the namesake designer; a series from
sex therapist Dr. Laura Berman; an
investigative series from Lisa Ling;
Master Class, featuring Winfrey -
picked
extraordinary people of our
time; Excellent Adventure, which
pairs a celebrity and their best friend
on a shared journey; and docusoap
Surfer’s Healing.

Winfrey herself will have a recurring
“on-air presence” on the network
in a new series once her syndicated
show wraps up in September 2011.
Along with original fare, OWN will offer acquired theatrical films, beginning
with the exclusive broadcast rights to the
Academy Award-nominated Precious.

OWN hopes Winfrey’s appeal and its
programming slate will help convince
operators to ante up as much as 50 cents
per subscriber for the new service, more
than quadruple the current 12-cent fee
for Discovery Health. Norman said she
expects OWN to launch in front of 75
million subscribers — 70 million of which
are current Discovery Health customers.

Last week, the former MTV and VH1 executive
sat down with Multichannel News
programming editor R. Thomas Umstead
to talk about her OWN philosophy.

MCN: What can a viewer expect to see on
OWN?

Christina Norman: We're actually working
on three big programming themes which
speak to the values that Oprah has stood for
over the past 25 years and the things that
she wants to bring to the audience with this
network. The first is "take charge of your
life," and that is so central to what Oprah
has done. You'll see that borne out with a
number of experts that you‘ve seen Oprah
champion over the past 25 years like [sex
therapist] Laura Berman and [Winfrey fitness
trainer] Bob Greene who will be coming
to OWN.

The next one that we talk about is “dream
and do it.” Nobody has stood for making your
dreams come true more so than Oprah —
whether it’s giving away cars, as she famously
did, or the launch of this network, which is
the culmination of her dream. I think what
that says is that you really can achieve your
dreams and we can give you the tools to help
you achieve your dreams.

The last one is “look beyond yourself.”
Some of the most memorable shows I’ve
seen Oprah do over the years are ones that
you think aren’t going to do anything to you.
You initially say, “why do I care about this
person?” but then find yourself completely
transformed by their story. Those are the
three big programming themes that we’re
playing in and you’ll see these things unfold
in all sorts of ways from nonfiction series to
specials to interstitials in primetime.

Daytime is also something that we’re looking
at and where you’ll see original series as
well.

Clearly, acquisitions will also look to be part
of this network. One of the fi rst things we announced
is the OWN Documentary Film Club,
focusing on issues and stories that we really
know connect with this audience and don’t
have a platform someplace else. Hopefully
the OWN Documentary Film Club can do for
these projects and these issues what Oprah’s
book club has done for books.

We’ve already acquired our first movie at
Sundance, Family Affair, and we’ll be acquiring
theatrical films as well. We’ve acquired
[Academy Award-nominated movie] Precious
in its first broadcast-television window and
we have to make sure we’re in the market for
movies that are right on brand for us.

Overall, we’re looking to have fun and be
relevant and optimistic — not just stacking
five episodes together but really being alive
in the world for our audience.

 

MCN: Have you given any thought to original
scripted series?

CN: I think scripted is obviously something
we’d do somewhere down the line. I think
we’ve all seen some networks struggle in
that regard, so its important for us to be really
close, listen to our audience and take from
them the kind of series that will resonate
with them. Th is is a long-term opportunity
and as this network continues to grow and
evolve, you’re going to see diff erent types of
programming enter our schedule.

 

MCN: Any shot at airing original films from
Oprah’s Harpo Films division?
I know Harpo
cut a deal with HBO to develop original
fi lms for the pay service.

CN: Kate Forte runs Harpo Films — she’s
amazing and they do fantastic work, but
that’s not my primary focus right now. Just
as scripted fare is something we might invest
in down the line, [original movies] are
not my focus in the first couple of years for
us. That said, I would love to partner with
Kate on movies that she thinks are right for
us down the road, and I know we’ll have
that opportunity.

 

MCN: How frequently will Oprah herself
appear on the network?

CN: One of the shows that you’re going to see
is Behind the Scenes: The 25th Anniversary.
Obviously, Oprah and that team in Chicago
are pulling out all the stops to make that final
season the blowout to end all blowouts and I
think you’ll see that in this show. Oprah will
have a presence on that show — this is the
final season through her eyes. We’ll be there
from the pre-production meetings, talking
to producers and the audience. No one has ever gone behind the scenes at Harpo before
to see the people and the craziness, so
I think this will be a great, great series for
the audience.

 

MCN: Once the Behind the Scenes show is
over, will Oprah have a regular on-air presence
on OWN?

CN: As Oprah said, it’s the end of The Oprah
Winfrey Show — that show is not going to air
anymore. But clearly, the beauty of having
your own network is that it can be the place
where her next big idea is going to be seen.
We’re working with her now on what that is,
what the format will be, what she does and
doesn’t want to do, what she hasn’t done before
and how she can she really have a big
presence on the network. We will be premiering
a new series with her after the syndicated
show goes off the air, and we’re looking
at a bunch of diff erent ideas for what that
can be. Th e beauty of having this network is
that Oprah can say, “I want to go on the air
tomorrow and I want to talk about X,” and
for us to be able to do that. The reason The
Oprah Winfrey Show has been so successful
is that when you are talking about it, she’s
talking about it. I think being relevant and
alive in our audience’s life is key and we’re
building opportunities for Oprah to be able
to do that whenever she wants to do that.

 

MCN: How many subscribers will the network
have at launch?

CN: We will have 75 million subscribers at
launch when we take over Discovery Health.
We’re so lucky to come into this with a built
in audience from [Winfrey’s O, The Oprah
Magazine], Oprah.com and from the daily
show. Seventy-nine percent of women 25 to
54, when they were described OWN’s mission
and programming focus, said that they
were interested in this network. That’s an
incredibly powerful number. This is a compelling
offer from a one-of-a kind television
pioneer; her audience sees the value and
they will follow her. I think that is a compelling
offer for our cable partners.

 

MCN: It’s been reported that OWN will ask
for a license fee of as much as 50 cents,
which is well above Discovery Health’s
reported 12 cents. You’re a veteran of the
cable industry and you know how potentially
contentious discussions between
operators and networks can be. Are you
confi dent you’ll be able to secure industrywide
distribution of the channel?

CN: We are defi nitely looking at pricing
that is commensurate with its value. I’m
confident we’ll gain carriage because the
audience will speak … the audience wants
this content. There is nothing else like this
out there and I think that is a really compelling
proposition. As you said, I’m a veteran
of the cable industry and I understand
how these conversations go. I think we’ll be
demonstrating considerable value for our
cable-operator partners that will make this
a smart decision on their end. I’m not asking
for something for free — I’m bringing
something of value.

 

MCN: Will OWN have a multiplatform play
as well?

CN: Oprah.com is the home of all things
Oprah, so that will encompass OWN as it
currently encompasses O magazine and
The Oprah Winfrey Show. We are using that
destination to be the one stop for everyone
who wants anything Oprah-related. OWN
will also be HD ready at launch.

 

MCN: Will full episodes from OWN original
series eventually be available on Oprah.com?

CN: I think that what we’ve all seen borne
out is that putting a television network online
doesn’t do anyone any good. I don’t
know if it’s about taking the shows and putting
it online, but I think that what you see
on Oprah.com currently — including video
clips, outtakes and extended experiences
— is what we’re looking to build.

We want to give operators opportunities to
connect with an audience via a multiplatform
experience that does not diminish the value
of the linear experience.

 

MCN: How much input will Discovery Communications
have on OWN’s programming
and operational decisions?
CN:
We have a board that [Discovery Communications
CEO] David Zaslav, [Discovery
chief operating officer] Peter Ligouri,
[former MTV executive and OWN adviser]
Tom Freston and Oprah sit on that we present
programming ideas to. Th ose guys are
great programmers and Oprah has incredible
instincts on what works on television.
I think the beauty of this joint venture in
that you get to partner with people who
have made great things for television, have
strong opinions and have the ability to
market and support what it is that we’re doing.
I welcome everyone’s input.

 

MCN: Will any of the Discovery Health content
remain on OWN?

CN: Clearly, we don’t want to alienate the
Discovery Health audience — it’s been a
great business and they’ve done some great
programming. We are looking at ways to
refresh some of the existing franchises and
present them to the OWN audience with a
bit of a facelift. Mystery Diagnosis is one that
we’re looking at that fi ts into our brand, as
well as Deliver Me. We’re also looking to do
specials with Dr. G [medical examiner Jan
Garavaglia], as well as other ways to make
that library work on OWN.

September