In Depth

12 to Watch: Oprah Winfrey

After helping to elect Barack Obama president in 2008, Oprah Winfrey’s agenda for 2009 might be even bigger.

12 to Watch

Already the queen of syndication, Ms. Winfrey is out to conquer cable. She’s launching OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network in a joint venture with Discovery Communications. In December, she made a deal to develop and produce scripted programming with HBO. And there’s no reason to believe she can’t make it all work.

“Oprah’s always had a magic touch. Virtually everything she has engaged in has been successful, so why not try this?” said Dennis Swanson, president of operations at the Fox Television Station Group. He put Ms. Winfrey on the air in Chicago, helping to launch her career.

That magic touch comes from hard work, Mr. Swanson said. “Back in ’84-85, when we started her on ‘A.M. Chicago,’ she was a tireless worker. I don’t see any reason for her to slow down if she doesn’t want to, and apparently she doesn’t want to.”

Ms. Winfrey’s new business partners say she is very hands-on with their ventures.

“It’s been a lot of fun, not just for me, but for the whole Discovery team,” said Discovery CEO David Zaslav. “She’s set the bar higher and she’s brought up the energy level, and she’s a kind and good person.”

OWN hasn’t yet set a launch date—it will be either late this year or early in 2010. Last week former MTV president Christina Norman was named CEO of OWN.

How Ms. Winfrey herself will appear on the network is something that is still being worked out. “That will be her decision,” Mr. Zaslav said, adding, “Oprah’s presence will be felt.”

But he declined to comment on whether Ms. Winfrey would continue to do her syndicated show, or move it to cable. “Ask her,” he said.

Ms. Winfrey also is hands-on at HBO, said Michael Lombardo, president of the programming group and West Coast operations for the network.

“We’re not at a point where we’re ready to start announcing projects, but let’s just say that Oprah and her team hit the ground running,” Mr. Lombardo said. “I think that the breadth of the kinds of projects they’re interested in is very exciting and for some people may be unexpected.

“I look at her endeavors and this is a woman who clearly likes to be busy,” he added.. “I was a fan from afar and now I’m a fan up close.”

AT A GLANCE

Name: Oprah Winfrey

Title: Talk show host and media mogul

How long in current position: Since 1986

Year of birth: 1954

Place of birth: Kosciusko, Miss.

What to watch for: Ms. Winfrey is launching new cable ventures with Discovery and HBO amid much speculation about how long she will continue to do her top-rated syndicated show.

Who knew? Ms. Winfrey dated movie critic Roger Ebert, who helped convince her she could make a lot of money if she took her local Chicago talk show into syndication.

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