Jonathan Storm: First birth of 2011: Oprah's network
She'll give it a bounce that most TV start-ups struggle to get.
Baby cable-TV networks are like baby humans. Born tiny and weak, they may struggle for years to find a place in the world.
Things should be different when the newborn's mom is Oprah Winfrey.
At 12:01 a.m. New Year's Day, while couples are still kissing and confetti is still flying, the Discovery Health Channel will morph into the Oprah Winfrey Network.
The much-anticipated network, three years in the making and a year behind schedule, will arrive bearing - and constantly playing up - the Oprah Winfrey brand, one of the best in TV history.
Everybody knows Oprah, but in the fractionalized TV world of 2011, will that be enough?
Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research at Horizon Media, a New York media-services agency, says: "It's very difficult to launch something that isn't going to make viewers scratch their heads and say, 'What's this?'
"But when it's the Oprah Winfrey Network, you have a pretty good idea of what it's going to be like, and who the advertisers and viewers are going to be."
Winfrey, 56, has agreed to give 70 hours of her bright countenance to OWN this year. The network, which promises to go 24/7 without the late-night and weekend infomercials that characterize many second-tier cable channels, boasts that it will have nearly one solid month of its own programming ready to go and another month of acquired documentaries and features. Like many cable outlets, OWN will feature plenty of repeats.
Such popular Discovery Health series as Deliver Me and Mystery Diagnosis will continue on the new channel, which will be found in Discovery Health's spot - usually in the 50s, 60s, or 70s in Comcast lineups, but 182 in much of Philadelphia.
The long run-up to OWN's debut has given chief executive Christina Norman, formerly president of MTV, time to perfect her patter. "We want to continue what Oprah's done for 25 years to such tremendous effect - provide viewers the tools they need to live their best lives," she says.
The demographic OWN is selling is 25- to 54-year-old women, and it's what has gotten the nine corporations identified by the network as advertising partners - Chase, Wal-Mart, Toyota, Procter & Gamble, Kohl's, General Motors, Nissan, Target, and Kellogg - to take out big stakes up front.
But Norman would like to disabuse you of one idea you might have about the viewers: "We've never set out to be a women's network.
"We're working really hard to make sure that men find something for themselves here. Our logo isn't script, and it isn't pink. I think, for instance, men would overwhelmingly take financial advice from Oprah Winfrey, a self-made billionaire."
"There's no doubt she'll get some male viewership," says Noah Everist, broadcast supervisor in the Compass Point Media unit of Minneapolis ad agency Campbell Mithun, "but there are a lot of other better ways - Spike, ESPN - to get that audience."
Besides Winfrey, the network comes presold with lots of names whom she's recruited or who have come seeking a place in her spotlight.
From the get-go, OWN will feature TV personality Cristina Ferrare, sexpert Dr. Laura Berman (not to be confused with radio commentator Dr. Laura Schlessinger), and Winfrey's best friend, Gayle King, who will turn TV cameras on her radio show the way Howard Stern and Don Imus have done. Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Suze Orman will all take the stage in a mega-advice show, Ask Oprah's All-Stars.
Oz and Phil will keep their own syndicated programs and do extra duty appearing sporadically on OWN. It will rerun Dr. Phil and the home-design show Trading Spaces, with some updates provided by its original host, Philadelphia native Paige Davis.
Coming soon, even more celebrities with their own daily or weekly shows, giving advice and discussing how they have overcome problems: Queer Eye diva Carson Kressley; Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York; Naomi and Wynonna Judd; Ryan and Tatum O'Neal; and Shania Twain. Winfrey and an entourage descended on Rosie O'Donnell's home in the New York suburbs and came away with a deal for her to start a talk show in the fall.
Big stars are lined up for the summer series Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind, going behind the scenes with James Cameron, Lady Gaga, Annie Leibovitz, will.i.am, and Tyler Perry.
A series of specials will feature more stars, including Jay-Z, Diane Sawyer, Simon Cowell, Sidney Poitier, Maya Angelou, Lorne Michaels, Condoleezza Rice, and Winfrey herself.
Getting Winfrey to appear, lots and lots, on her own network was a key goal of Discovery Communications, which is a 50-50 partner in the venture with Winfrey's company, Harpo Productions Inc.
OWN, unlike many new channels, will be immediately on the grid in about 80 million homes.
Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes will give viewers a weekly look at how Winfrey's super-successful syndicated daytime talk show is made. Winfrey will continue on that show until it ends production in May. After it goes off the air in September, eventually turning up in reruns on OWN, she'll be available for a new talk show.
It won't be similar to her current show, which attracts seven million viewers every weekday. In the first place, it won't be daily. It will probably be called Oprah's Next Chapter.
"It's something new," says Norman, "a way for her to get out of the studio, see the world, and bring interviews with her, whether it's to the Great Wall of China or riding camels in the desert."
Norman isn't overreaching in stating the network's initial viewership goals. "We look to double Discovery Health's ratings . . . in prime time. The network currently ranks in the 40s on cable. We think we can move that into the 20s."
Translation: If they can average about 500,000 viewers, most between 25 and 54 - about 6 percent of Winfrey's audience - and get into the same ratings company as Discovery's TLC, which ranks sixth among women, they'll be ecstatic. "But it's a marathon, not a sprint," Norman cautions.
Discovery is also trying to pry much larger carriage fees from cable operators for OWN, according to Business Week, as much as three times the average of seven cents that it gets for Discovery Health per subscriber.
That could net an extra $134 million a year. OWN is forecast to take in about $100 million in advertising in its first year, more than five times what Discovery Health earns. But all of that, and more, will be gobbled up by a similar percentage increase in spending on programming to about $160 million.
That's some big ambition.
"From their perspective, they have to be overly ambitious," says analyst Adgate. Cable TV is not the burgeoning medium it was 10 years ago, and it is overloaded with choice. "This could be the last big launch in cable."
The TV queen admitted some trepidation in an interview in her own publication, O, The Oprah Magazine.
"I have never felt such fear in all my life," Winfrey said. "I was afraid it wouldn't be what The Oprah Winfrey Show has been, and has meant, for all these years."
And it won't be. It will be diluted. It won't have the syndicated show's clout. But that does not mean it won't become a powerful moneymaker and a cable-TV success.
"It always comes down to the true democracy of voting with your remote," says Compass Point's Everist. "People are undoubtedly going to sample it because of Oprah and who she is, and it would be foolish to bet against her."