A Crack in Oprah’s New TV Network

Delayed launch, executive shuffle plague Winfrey’s fledgling OWN.

Last Updated: June 27, 2010 @ 12:11 AM

Delayed launch, executive shuffle plague Winfrey's fledgling OWN.

Has Oprah lost her golden touch?

For over 20 years, just about everything connected to Winfrey — even coupons for KFC chicken — has been guaranteed money in the bank. But her latest venture, the upcoming L.A.-based cable network under Discovery’s umbrella, the Oprah Winfrey Network, is going through tough times.

OWN’s president Robin Schwartz resigned April 20 after only 10 months at the network. The launch date has been moved from 2009 to the first quarter of 2010. And it remains unclear whether Oprah will move her “Oprah Winfrey Show” to OWN after its syndication contract with CBS expires in 2011.

“It has been a rocky start. But it’s hard to launch a network. Maybe they were a little too ambitious,” said a former Discovery executive, who requested anonymity.

OWN declined to comment for this article; representatives of Winfrey’s Harpo Productions did not return requests for comment.

Discovery Communications (DSCA) president and CEO David Zaslav has said Discovery will spend $70 to $80 million on the launch of OWN, which will replace the Discovery Health Network in 70 million homes. Programming, according to Discovery, will be “a mix of original and acquired programs with plans under way for strips, specials and acquired movies.”

In early April, OWN’s CEO Christina Norman unveiled six reality programs that were in development. The slate includes shows hosted by frequent “Oprah” guests Peter Walsh and Dr. Laura Berman, an investigative-news program featuring “The View’s” Lisa Ling and a celebrity “adventure” show produced by Ashton Kutcher's Katalyst Film. (See accompanying list of shows in development.)

But it’s unclear whether any of OWN’s shows have begun shooting.

When asked why the Oprah Winfrey Network’s launch was postponed to 2010, David Leavy, Discovery’s executive vice president of communications, told TheWrap it was a strategic move, not a financial one. The network, he said, will be better positioned to enter the marketplace early next year.

As for Schwartz’s departure, it seemed there were too many cooks on OWN’s executive team, especially after Norman was hired along with producer Nina Wass and former Lifetime executive Maria Grasso.

Leavy told TheWrap that Schwartz left so that the company could “focus on having one senior leader at the organization.”

“The first team did a good job of establishing the bones of the effort,” he said. “Then Christina was able to come in with fresher eyes, more experience. No one wants to have too many layers at the top. This helped clean up senior-manager processes.”

The former Discovery executive told TheWrap that Schwartz spent too much money on new projects and wanted to produce pilots of all of OWN’s shows — something that is rarely done with nonfiction series.

Leavy, however, responded that he had not heard about Schwartz going over budget adding that her exit “was never a cost overrun issue.”

But Schwartz seemed an odd choice to head OWN from the get-go, given her extensive experience in producing scripted television but lack of experience with reality, on which the network seems to be focused.

As president of Regency Television, Schwartz oversaw production of “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Bernie Mac Show,” among others. Before that, she worked with showrunners including Doug Liman and Amy Sherman-Palladino as ABC Family’s vice president of programming.

Wass and Grasso also come from the scripted TV world. Wass served as executive producer on ABC shows including “Less Than Perfect” and “The Geena Davis Show.” Grasso oversaw scripted programming at Lifetime and previously headed drama production at the WB.

Schwartz’s exit is reminiscent of layoffs last year at Discovery’s TLC network. The Silver Spring, MD.,-based company moved its operations to Los Angeles in 2007 in what is believed to have been an attempt to get closer to Hollywood.

Former head of Fox television studio Angela Shapiro-Mathes was hired to head TLC, then let go after 15 months, during which she did not produce a breakout hit. She was replaced with longtime Discovery executive Eileen O’Neill, who currently runs TLC from Silver Spring.

TLC’s senior vice president of programming Brant Pinvidic, who had staffed the cable network with a dozen studio programming executives, also was let go.

Leavy said he isn’t aware of future layoffs at OWN.

“Discovery has traditionally been Hollywood-phobic,” said the former Discovery executive. “Staking a claim in Los Angeles for one of their biggest networks was saying, ‘We’re different and we’re welcoming.’ But again, they hired someone who didn’t understand the reality business. [Shapiro-Mathes] blew through a ton of money.”

Leavy said comparing Schwartz and Shapiro-Mathes’ situations is like comparing “apples to pumpkins.”

“It was very clear that we had lost our audience at TLC. We felt like there was a real need to change management who knew the audience better,” Leavy said, adding that TLC moved in order to be closer to producers pitching projects. “But one of the consequences of moving the entire network to L.A. was losing some of the synergy and strength of the entire organization.”

And then there’s Winfrey herself. The media mogul's previous foray into the cable world wasn't what she had hoped. Winfrey invested $20 million to launch the Oxygen network in 2002, but she quietly stepped away from the network when it failed to garner audiences and advertisers. NBC Universal bought Oxygen Media for $925 million in 2007. (Check out our Oprah timeline.)

The future of whether Winfrey’s talk show will itself migrate to OWN remains to be seen. Discovery CEO Zaslav has expressed confidence that “Oprah” would become a critical piece of OWN.

“The current expectation is that after fall 2011, her show will go off syndication and she will come to OWN,” Zaslav told Broadcasting & Cable in November. “This is her chapter two, and building the OWN brand online and on-air is something and she and I are working on together.”

Following Zaslav's comment, however, Harpo issued a press statement that said Winfrey was considering retirement after her ABC contract expires. Leavy said Zaslav’s comments were misreported.

Winfrey said her plans are up in the air during an interview on “Extra” in December. “I'm a girl that keeps her word. I have a contract till 2011, so right now that's what I have until someone writes me another one,” she said. “I'm going to fulfill my contractual obligations and fulfill them happily.”

“Oprah’s definitely going to be on the network. Whether it’s on her show or in other opportunities to be on the air … that’s what the team’s working on,” Leavy said.

Despite the shake-ups at OWN, hopes are still high that the network can achieve Oprah-level success.

“If they stay true to the Oprah brand, it will be a huge hit,” the former Discovery executive said. “It’s not a surprise that they’re pushing back — it is a surprise that they dumped their lead executive a year in and have so little in their coffers.”

“But I think they’ll get it right.”