Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav have run out of excuses: With their unofficial relaunch today of OWN, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves if their struggling joint venture fails to show a big improvement in the ratings following a dismal 3Q. In its targeted demo, women 25-54, OWN delivered a rating of .16 — down 16% vs. the same period last year when the channel was still Discovery Health. OWN may have set a deceptively low bar for itself; word is that it cut back on marketing in preparation for the relaunch. Still, the channel is betting everything on Oprah’s star power — and, to a lesser extent, Rosie O’Donnell’s — and that will be put to the test beginning today with the launch of The Rosie Show (7-8 PM) and Oprah’s Lifeclass (8-9 PM). Winfrey’s program, built on clips from her syndicated talk show, begins with one of her classics: for an episode about “ego,” she will include scenes from the show where she illustrated how much weight she lost from a liquid protein diet by wheeling in a wagon filled with 70 pounds of fat. Discovery will air both shows today on TLC, Investigation Discovery, Discovery Fit & Health and Planet Green as well as OWN. The joint venture also is spending more than $10M for marketing, not including free ad time on Discovery-owned networks. The cash is going for ads on hit shows such as The X Factor and Dancing With The Stars, as well as radio and billboards, and websites including Yahoo, Google, People.com, Technorati, and TVGuide.com.
Christina Norman, ousted as CEO of the Oprah Winfrey Network in May, will become executive editor of HuffPost Black Voices, a new site that the AOL Huffington Post Media Group is expected to launch later this week. Norman plans to kick off her new job, first reported by paidContent, by telling the story of her departure from OWN in an essay. “It’s a great lesson for women, that when one door closes, another one opens,” said Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of the AOL Huffington Post Media Group. “There is enormous pressure on high-profile women to succeed, to constantly prove themselves. I met Christina in Los Angeles when she was the head of OWN. After she left, I asked her if she wanted to do something completely different.” Norman was president of MTV prior to leading OWN. Mixed ratings momentum in its early going following its January launch led to her departure; after she left, Discovery Communications COO Peter Liguori stepped in as interim CEO. Last month, it emerged that Oprah Winfrey herself will add the CEO and chief creative officer titles at OWN.
OWN SHAKEUP: So What Happens Next? Christina Norman To Exit Oprah’s Network, Peter Liguori To Take Over As Interim CEO; Will Judy McGrath Be Brought In To Run It?
UPDATE: Don’t put too much cash on the table if you want to bet that former MTV Networks chief Judy McGrath will soon be running OWN following the announcement today that Christina Norman has been ousted from the job. Discovery COO Peter Liguori was told that he’ll be at the network as interim CEO for about a year — at least into 2012. The Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications joint venture won’t even begin to look for a replacement until this fall, we’re told. Winfrey and Discovery CEO David Zaslav want to wait until Oprah is done with her syndicated talk show — and give Liguori time to straighten out what everyone now acknowledges has been a mess. Winfrey and Zaslav lost confidence in Norman around the end of March. They were tired of making excuses for OWN’s ratings, which nosedived after the channel made its debut in January. They also lacked faith in the development slate Norman had put together. Winfrey suggested calling in Liguori, the former chief of Fox Broadcasting who had been associated with hits including American Idol, 24, and Glee. After Zaslav agreed, they decided to sit on the decision. They didn’t want to mar Discovery’s April 14th upfront presentation to advertisers and media.
But the timing of the announcement today, one day after McGrath said that she’s leaving her long time perch as head of Viacom’s MTV Networks, seemed too neat to be a coincidence. Insiders say that nothing’s in the works to bring Judy to OWN. But they acknowledge that Discovery’s plans could change in a heartbeat: Liguori didn’t sign a new contract to take charge of OWN. And McGrath is considered a prime candidate. She’s one of cable’s most highly regarded creative executives. She’s also a close ally of former Viacom CEO Tom Freston, a consultant at OWN who’s up there with Winfrey and Zaslav in deciding what direction the channel should take. Actually, McGrath’s close ties to Freston are one of many reasons why Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman pushed her aside. He became Viacom’s CEO in 2006 after Chairman Sumner Redstone fired Freston. Still, McGrath isn’t a shoo-in. She lives in New York, and the OWN partners want the operation to be in Los Angeles. She also may not want a job that would require her to share so much power with Winfrey and Zaslav. Some executives say it may be impossible for anyone to create order at the channel while reporting to two high-powered bosses who see OWN as the venture that could define their careers.
PREVIOUS: After a little over than two years on the job, Christina Norman is leaving as CEO of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. Peter Liguori, COO of Discovery Communications, who has been hands-on involved in the fledgling network, a co-venture between Discovery and Winfrey’s Harpo, will serve as interim CEO while continuing in his Discovery role. Discovery and Harpo had been quietly searching for a replacement for Norman for the past couple of months, with CBS syndication executive Terry Wood rumored for the job at one point. Then speculation heated up yesterday that Judy McGrath, who stepped down as chairman and CEO of MTV Networks, may be a prime contender. She was originally approached for the top OWN job in 2008. Word is that no decision will be made for a few months and that the new person may jointly oversee OWN with Liguori. After a solid launch in January, OWN has failed to generate strong ratings and has been trending just above its predecessor Discovery Health, something Winfrey and Discovery Communications president and CEO David Zaslav have been reportedly unhappy about.
UPDATE: Here is the release announcing the change:
OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network will launch at noon on January 1, 2011 with an hourlong introduction by Winfrey. Today the cable channel announced the schedule for its premiere weekend as well as its regular daytime and primetime line-up. It also unveiled 2 more family docu reality series: The Judds, which follows country music duo Naomi and Wynonna Judd as they prepare for their first tour in ten years together, and Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals, which follows the father and daughter as they reclaim their relationship after being estranged for over 25 years. “During our launch weekend, the audience will see a little of everything OWN has to offer,” said Christina Norman, chief executive officer, OWN.
Another Discovery executive has been brought over to OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, Discovery Communications’ co-venture with Harpo. Maurizio Vitale has been named SVP marketing for the channel, slated to launch on January 1, 2011. He will oversee all on-air and off-air marketing and promotion, reporting to OWN CEO Christina Norman. Vitale comes from Discovery Networks EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) where he was SVP marketing communications. Before that, Vitale was VP creative for MTV Europe Networks.