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TelevisionWeek is teaming up with TV industry veteran Marianne Paskowski. The blog will give Marianne a forum to convey her deep knowledge of the industry and pass along some of the juicy morsels she's hearing on the grapevine. Marianne has covered the TV industry from the inside out and top to bottom, and TVWeek's readers are bound to benefit from her sharp eyes, ears and wit. TVWeek.com invites readers to jump online, chime in and pick Marianne's brain on the latest industry news.

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Marianne Paskowski



Oprah Builds OWN Team

June 20, 2008 10:52 AM

This week Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications announced that Robin Schwartz, a relative unknown quantity in cable programming circles, was named president of the Oprah Winfrey Network that debuts next year.

But what’s more odd, is that Oprah didn’t name a CEO first. Usually, the big suit is hired first, allowing him or her to handpick the dream team.

What the Schwartz announcement says to me is that Oprah will be very hands on with the editorial direction of OWN. Rumors have been abuzz for months that MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath was a contender for the top spot. I’ve also heard that former Turner exec Scott Sassa has his hat in the ring, too.

Another name in the swirl is Susan Lyne, who left Martha Steward Living Omnimedia last week.

But does it really matter who gets the gig? Given the Schwartz hire, it’s clear to all that Oprah will run the new cable net with an iron fist.

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Comments (12)

Marianne,

I'm still waiting for Oprah to explain why and when she bolted from Oxygen. Was it the programming, which was dismissed by the New York Times as about drunken stupid sluts? Or was it the partner, Geraldine Laybourne, who was characterized by Working Woman magazine as "a cold warrior. There always has to be an emeny." (Hint: the answer is the one and the same.)

I have to think Oprah learned a lesson at Oxygen: choose your partners carefully! Laybourne's vision is just too vulgar and ugly. Look at Nickelodeon and Oxygen both.

Of OWN, Robin Schwartz told the LA Times: "It won't be mean-spirited. It's all about the positive, about intelligence, kindness and learning, and building a connection with the audience."

In other words, OWN will be 180 degrees opposite of anything you will find at Viacom.

So why would Oprah hire Judy McGrath and risk repeating her Laybourne fiasco? What good attributes of Sumner Redstone's might McGrath have picked up at Viacom that Laybourne eschewed?

Does Sumner Redstone have any good attributes?

Marianne Paskowski:

Cory,
Well some thing we will never know about what happened with Oprah and Oxygen.

I'm not losing any sleep over that. I'm just wondering who the new OWN CEO will be and why that person wasn't hired first to pick his/her own team.

Oprah does have total editorial control and that could be a turnoff to potential candidates.

But shoot, who am I to second guess Oprah? The world doesn't care that I prefer Crabtree & Evelyn's lavender hand therapy cream, over whatever hand cream Oprah just gave her imprimatur to.

Frankly, I'd rather know Oprah's stock picks, rather than second guess her, like I'm now doing. Shame on me:}

Marianne

Jason:

Hey Marianne,
If you look at Oprah's ratings, I'd say her popularity, while still very strong, has or is very near its peak. Some believe she's alienated conservatives with her support of Obama. I just think people are getting sick of her being plastered everywhere. This network just sounds like overkill. There's enough of this niche crap out there eating up people's cable channels already. I hope it crashes and burns and Oprah learns a lesson to stick to daytime.
-Jason

Marianne Paskowski:

Hi Jason,

Oprah's rating are down and, yes, she is over-exposed. I can't stand her new, or not so new preacher tone.

It's hard to take advice from a multi-millionaire telling you how to live your life. Do you think Oprah even knows the price of a gallon of gas in Chicago, among the highest in the country?

Here's a predication: OWN will eventually be downgraded to Siberia, a digital tier that it will share will three or four other religious networks.

That's where this channel belongs.

Meanwhile, I still want her stock tips:} Maybe she should just appear as a guest on CNBC. That's what I want to hear from Oprah, and not all of this spirituality crap. I really hate when she wears it on her sleeve.

Marianne

Hi Marianne and Jason,

Even though I'm cranky about Oprah's less-than-forthcoming involvement with and departure from Oxygen, I've been and in many ways still am a fan of hers. In fact, up until she announced OWN I told my students I'd vote for Oprah for President. Oprah's spirituality doesn't bother me the way it does you, Marianne. At least she's got a positive message. My pastor, Dr. Alan Meenan, and other theologians, however, are alarmed. Dr. Meenan delivered a sermon last week responding to Oprah's message that "There is more than one way to God." He played a tape of her. It was stunning. Needless to say, he vehemently disagrees, as does the Evangelical community at large. From what I hear this is another storm brewing, not good at all for OWN or Discovery.

I agree with you, Jason:

I love your blog, Marianne.

Cory

Marianne Paskowski:

Cory,

I think Oprah is smart not to talk about what happened at Oxygen, it's pretty apparent, by her departure, whenever that was, that she wasn't happy about the arrangement, and, perhaps, Oxygen milking her name, brand.

Oprah probably took the high road here, let's see where it leads. She still has many fans, I just don't happen to be among them.

I used to be, many years ago, but I can't stand her new preacher-esque (is there such a word?) status.

Cory, as always, thanks for your kind words, just trying to stimulate conversation about strange things afoot in cable.

And this certainly has the potential to become one of those odd moments in cable's history.

Be well my friend,
Marianne

Oprah, Oprah, Oprah. She is in a precarious position. If she does something great, we all know it right away. If she makes a mistake, again, we all know it right away.

If she wants to try something, she has the clout to get backing and involvement, or can whip out a checkbook and pay for it.

If Truth can get to her through all the circular screening by the dozens who "protect" her from outside influences, then she usually makes good decisions based on her heart and inner Truth.

Another new Oprah project? Time will tell on the relevance and success of it.

I, for one, appreciate who she is and what she can do when she owns an idea or a concept.

We need more who think like she does and act on their conscience. She's a stand up kind of gal and will acknowledge her mistakes and take a bow, when appropriate.
Peter Bright

Sorry, Peter. I can only agree with half of what you say. While I appreciate who Oprah is and most of what she does, she completely bamboozled us regarding Oxygen. When she and Gerry Laybourne announced Oxygen a decade ago, they appeared everywhere, from the Hollywood trades to Time magazine to the cover of Forbes. Their message: "Oxygen is all about Oprah." Following this cue, cable operators, advertisers, and consumers equated Oxygen with Oprah. Cable operators signed on to carry Oxygen. Advertisers bought ads. Viewers watched this and that. But guess what? At some point and without telling these important stakeholders, Oprah bolted, leaving her name and bio on the Oxygen Web site. In a publicly held company, Oprah's departure would be classified as "material information" and Oxygen would have been required by law to disclose it.

But Oprah and Oxygen chose to operate above the law. We wouldn't learn for 7 or 8 years that Oprah left Oxygen, and the only reason we found out is because she was asked about it when she announced OWN several months ago.

For all the effort that went into the original branding of Oxygen as the Oprah Network, Oprah owes an explanation for when and why she left. Marianne says she's taking the high road. Inasmuch as that's probably true, I still feel completely bamboozled. As much as I love Oprah, I trust her a lot less.

Marianne Paskowski:

Cory,

Why on earth should you feel bamboozled? You are not a cable operator who signed up for Oxygen based on the Oprah name. Nor are you an advertiser who paid money to be a float in the Oprah parade.

Viewers didn't have to pay more to get Oxygen, if they were even aware of its existence, often, in the early days, and still now is on a digital tier.

You're just angry because you want to hear what you never will, why Oprah bailed. You know why.

Here's a simple explanation why her name appeared on the Oxygen website, long after her departure. Either someone from Oprah's team dropped the ball.

I doubt that. They agreed to agree to disagree and part ways quietly, the beauty of a private company.

And maybe the truly female way to do it.

M

Marianne,

Why should I feel bamboozled?

Happy to tell you. Each semester I stand in front of a university classroom of entertainment marketing students to discuss Nickelodeon, Oxygen, and the partnership between Gerry Laybourne and Oprah Winfrey. Referencing The New York Times articles that characterize Oxygen's programming as being about drunken, "stupid sluts," I have pondered with my class why Oprah would be involved in such a thing, being as it is wholly inconsistent with her brand, which is about "living your best life."

For years I assumed I was discussing Oprah's current business, Oxygen. Not true. She had fled, I've now learned. I gave my students false information. Because I was bamboozled. Thank you for that, Oprah.

Now, on a different note. I just can't let that last statement slide by..."the truly female way to do it."

C'mon, Marianne. We're talking about Gerry Laybourne here. Her "truly female way to do it" is to be mean-spirited, vulgar, and duplicitous. Study her track record. Is hers really the "female way to do it?" Do you wish to be thought of that way?

If there's been a bigger fraud in the history of cable programmers and children's television, please point that person out now. On almost every topic, Gerry talks out of both sides of her mouth. If I were a woman looking for a role model in Big Media, I would definitely study Gerry Laybourne. I'd use her as a case study in: "Don't let this happen to you." If Gerry says you should do "X," it's probably a safe bet she's doing "Y." I have examples.

I disagree with you on one other thing: I do not believe Oprah will never comment on her departure from Oxygen. I believe there will come a time when she will have no choice but to speak up, and that time is soon. Because ultimately this conversation tracks back to what is bad for children. Nickelodeon. Working with Gerry Laybourne, Oprah saw first-hand what I'm taking about, which is why she ran away.

Yes?

Don't forget, Working Woman magazine (I sent you the copy a while back) called Laybourne a cold warrior who claimed parents are her enemy.

That's worth repeating it's so foul. Parents are Gerry Laybourne's enemy.

In the long run, Oprah Winfrey can't be the spiritual Love Goddess she wants us to think she is while looking away from Nickelodeon, Big Media's most sinister invention yet, enemy of parents everywhere, a child predator in the guise of a global television network for kids.

Thanks for the push back.

I'm loving it in here.
Cory

Marianne Paskowski:

Cory,
Now I understand why you feel bamboozled and that's because of the class you teach and I cannot disagree with that.

Like I said before, I think Oprah chose to take the high road here, flee Oxygen, without a lot of fanfare.

I think the bigger question is how much skin in the Oxygen game did Oprah actually have? She did have that Oprah after hours show in late night on Oxygen.

Oprah was an investor. Maybe, now after her experience with Oxygen she insisted on total editorial control at OWN. I also think Oxygen exploited Oprah's name. Her presence on Oxygen was minimal.

Maybe that's what this is all about. I do think Oxygen exploited the relationship with Oprah and Oprah finally said enough is enough. I also think she didn't want to get in the way of the sale to NBCU. Oprah is no saint here, she wanted her money, too.

Remember, Oprah has a lot of business interests, and who knows how big her investment in Oxygen ever was. Point is, she said to Oxygen, enough and made that public after the sale of Oxygen to NBCU.

Now I get why you're hot under the collar and I understand.

M

Marianne,

Oprah's investment in Oxygen was $20 million and the rights to some of her shows for 25% of the Founder's Stake. I don't know how that got diluted in subsequent rounds of financing, but if at the time of the sale to NBCU she owned 10-15% of Oxygen, she walked away with $100 million, give or take.

I agree with you completely that in Oxygen she learned some tough lessons about business that I doubt she will repeat at OWN.

Cory

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