Discovery, Winfrey to Team Up On Network

Discovery Communications chief executive David M. Zaslav and Oprah Winfrey announce the new network in Chicago, where Winfrey is based.
Discovery Communications chief executive David M. Zaslav and Oprah Winfrey announce the new network in Chicago, where Winfrey is based. (Harpo Productions)
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Discovery Communications will launch a joint-venture partnership with Oprah Winfrey in the second half of next year called OWN -- the Oprah Winfrey Network -- combining her star power with the distribution of Discovery's Health Channel, the company announced yesterday.

Discovery chief executive David M. Zaslav called the venture "a great leap forward for us" and said that ownership and advertising revenue will be split evenly between Winfrey and Discovery. Winfrey will be the new company's chairman and will program the OWN channel, Zaslav said.

Discovery Health will continue to broadcast such shows as "Trauma: Life In the ER" until the OWN channel is launched next year, Zaslav said. The health channel, which he called "beachfront real estate" in the cable world, reaches at least 68 million homes. However, it generates very little affiliate revenue and advertising money and attracts modest ratings.

OWN will feature mostly original, nonfiction programming, Zaslav said, focusing on topics Winfrey is known for -- health, love, spirituality, child-rearing and personal growth. The channel will coordinate with, Winfrey's Web site, which averages about 6 million unique visitors per month.

Initially, OWN will not carry Winfrey's popular daily talk show, which is under contract to several stations through May 2011, she said in a conference call yesterday, though she added that she may be able to get out of the contract by 2010. Eventually, OWN may carry Winfrey's talk show or its next iteration.

"I have been asking myself for several years, 'What is next after 'The Oprah Winfrey Show,' what is the capital-n-e-x-t?" Winfrey said during the call. "David came along at a time when I was seriously ready to think about the 'next.' "

Zaslav approached Winfrey several months ago -- two days after she uncovered one of her journals from 1992, in which she wrote that she had a vision to create a television network based on her show, she said yesterday.

With OWN, the ubiquitous Winfrey can spread her brand even wider -- "helping people be more of themselves," she said. How wide? "Now I can do it 24 hours a day on a platform that goes on forever," she said.

OWN is not Winfrey's first vision of a television network.

In 1998, she was part of the start-up of Oxygen Media, a company that created the Oh women's lifestyle cable channel. In yesterday's call, Winfrey said she was only an investor in the company. The Oxygen Web site lists her as a co-founder.

Winfrey said the Oh channel "did not reflect my voice" and that she was "not a participant in the development of the channel." She said she gave up her Oxygen board seat after "a couple" of board meetings. Winfrey said she did not have editorial control of the Oh channel as she will with OWN.

NBC Universal bought Oxygen for $925 million in October.

Winfrey said she did not know how much time she would spend on her new venture, but compared it to the start-up of her O magazine in 2000, saying she spent five to six hours a day on the publication when it began.

It has not been decided where OWN will be based. Winfrey's Harpo Productions is in Chicago; Discovery is headquartered in Silver Spring.

Zaslav joined Discovery from NBC Universal in January 2007 and has spent the year turning it inside out. In addition to laying off about 1,000 employees, Zaslav closed all of Discovery's 103 retail stores, made two major acquisitions and named a chief operating officer. Discovery, which is privately held, plans to go public this spring.

Discovery has 100 networks in 173 nations and claims a global audience of 1.5 billion.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company