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OWN Sets Sights on Cable’s Own Oprah Demo

Oprah Winfrey’s announcement Nov. 20 that she will end her syndicated talk show in 2011 gave a much-needed shot in the arm for OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. Now that Winfrey’s plans are coming into focus, the joint venture between Discovery Communications and Harpo Productions is expected to unveil a slate of new programming in the coming weeks.

But when the network finally launches in Discovery Health’s 70 million-plus cable homes in January 2011, it will enter a competitive media landscape that increasingly caters to Winfrey’s core constituency: women.

“That whole target--working women and stay-at-home moms--is becoming more and more important and more and more difficult to reach,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media.

Indeed, NBC Universal’s women’s brands now include Bravo and Oxygen--a network founded by Winfrey and Gerry Laybourne--as well as the Web destination iVillage.

Oxygen was launched as an alternative to Lifetime, the original “television for women,” to use the network’s old slogan. Now Lifetime Networks includes the flagship channel as well as Lifetime Movie Network and Lifetime Real Women, the company’s digital channel.

“To be able to launch a network in such a competitive programming environment, you have to launch big,” observes Shari Anne Brill, senior VP and director of programming at media buying firm Carat. “[Winfrey] is larger than life in terms of her following, the types of people she’s able to attract, the kinds of issues she delves into. There’s nobody else like her. So she instantly brings a cache to that new network that no other cable network really has.”

Discovery and Winfrey first announced plans to launch a joint venture channel back in January 2008; however, the launch date has already been pushed back several times and there has been much turnover in the executive ranks. So Winfrey’s announcement clears the way for the network to gain some momentum.

Previously announced projects include an investigative series with correspondent Lisa Ling, who has been a contributor on The Oprah Winfrey Show; a newsmaker interview show called Master Class, possibly hosted by Winfrey; and a docu-soap about Surfers Healing, a California surf school for children with autism.

Additionally, Jenny McCarthy inked a multiplatform development deal with Harpo Production earlier this year. (Rumors about Jennifer Aniston fronting a talk show also surfaced, but OWN representatives denied that they were in talks or had even approached Aniston.)

Last year, Winfrey inked a development deal with HBO for scripted programming. Harpo Films chief Kate Forte said at the time that carriage agreements stipulate that OWN would stick to non-scripted programming, so the HBO deal would not be affected.

The carriage agreements for Discovery Health and by extension OWN call for a certain number of hours each day dedicated to health and medical programming. OWN will presumably take the cable run for Dr. Oz, Harpo’s latest syndicated talker, which would certainly fill the health/medical quota. And Discovery Health’s top-rated show Dr. G: Medical Examiner is also said to be in consideration for a berth on OWN.

Winfrey told CBS Corp. CEO Les Moonves that she would not simply transplant her top-rated talker to OWN. Rather, according to Deadline Hollywood Daily, she’ll do a show that is “smaller and different.”

“She’s going to do some version of [her daytime show],” says Brill. “Maybe she won’t host it every day. Maybe it won’t be the exact format. But she will have something.”

Certainly Winfrey is sure to be her own network’s biggest star.

“She’s not going to fall off the radar the way Howard Stern did [when he left terrestrial radio for satellite],” says Adgate. “Her name has become a brand and it has worked in a lot of different platforms.”

“She exerts a lot of power and influence,” adds Brill. “She’s an advertiser’s dream, so she’ll get that support. And she just commands a lot of attention.”