For decades cable channels have been built around specific interests like news, sports or classic movies. Beginning this weekend, there will be something altogether different: a cable channel shaped around a person, Oprah Winfrey.
The channel, called OWN, short for the Oprah Winfrey Network, will depend in part on Ms. Winfrey’s powerful role as a tastemaker for her millions of fans.
When it starts Saturday at noon, the network will essentially be recommending Oprah-branded programs the way she recommends books on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
“This network will be mind- and heart-food for people,” Ms. Winfrey said in an interview.
Her network is also the most-watched experiment in the television industry. Ms. Winfrey is taking an enormous risk by ending her 25-year-old broadcast talk show in 2011 and moving to cable, hoping that her viewers will move with her. Whether they watch or not, they’ll be paying for it: OWN is expected to eventually earn 25 cents a month in subscriber fees from each of the 85 million households it will serve.
OWN is not just a symbolic move to cable from broadcast. It is also a bet by Ms. Winfrey and her backers at Discovery Communications that media will be more personalized in the future — beginning with a channel built around one of the biggest personalities in the world.
“OWN is the first network, other than maybe the Disney Channel, that is really built around the worldview of a person,” said Tom Freston, the former chief executive of Viacom and now an adviser to Ms. Winfrey’s network.
OWN executives say Ms. Winfrey’s worldview, “Live your best life,” will be espoused by the dozen programs that will premiere in the channel’s first few months.
The initial slate includes “Oprah Presents Master Class,” featuring the life lessons of celebrities; “In the Bedroom With Laura Berman,” about couples’ sex lives; and “Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star,” a competition show.
Wynonna Judd, Shania Twain and Sarah Ferguson will add more star power to the channel’s schedule later in the year. But perhaps the most important stars are the ones that Ms. Winfrey has helped groom for the past decade, like Ms. Berman; Gayle King, whose morning radio show will be adapted for television; and Phil McGraw, whose broadcast talk show will be seen in repeats.
“It’s a double-down on Oprah and friends,” Gary Lico, the chief executive of CableU, which studies the cable industry.
Mr. Freston and the venture’s chief executive, Christina Norman, say that Ms. Winfrey will be the curator for viewers. If it works, others will surely follow, furthering the personalization trend.
“I think a lot of people are going to make a play for a channel,” Ms. Norman said. “In this multichannel universe, cable operators are pushing back tremendously on these networks that were launched that have not necessarily gained traction.”
Her advice to budding media moguls who want their own channels? “Rest up,” she said with a laugh. “Eat your Wheaties. It is a haul. It’s ambitious.”
Already, there are minds — and maybe egos — throbbing about the idea of an individual channel. This fall Martha Stewart claimed a big chunk of the Hallmark Channel’s schedule, and Ryan Seacrest held talks about an entertainment venture with AEG, the events promoter, and Creative Artists Agency, the talent agency.
For Ms. Winfrey, at least, Mr. Freston says it makes sense. “These days, people are so bombarded by things, they are looking for trusted people to edit and curate for them,” he said, citing the rise of aggregators on the Internet.
More than 100 major cable channels were started up in the 1980s and 1990s, giving rise to the famous gripe about there being “500 channels and nothing on.”
“We used to sit around in 2001 and ask, ‘What’s left?’ ” Mr. Freston said.
Few channels have been started since then. Distributor’s reluctance to add channels spurred interest in remaking the ones that already exist, which is why in 2008 the Discovery Home channel became Planet Green, and Court TV became truTV.
That is what OWN is doing, too, but in a much more prominent way. In a 50-50 joint venture with Ms. Winfrey, Discovery is investing nearly $200 million in OWN and letting it replace the little-viewed Discovery Health Channel. Between advertising revenue and increases in subscriber fees, Discovery executives see OWN becoming a multibillion-dollar asset comparable to HGTV or the Food Network.
“If there’s a channel launch that anyone thinks can be very successful, it’s OWN,” Richard Greenfield, a media analyst for BTIG Research. One of its biggest advantages, he said, is Ms. Winfrey’s marketing muscle. “It’s got the ability to put the channel on the map,” he said.
But even with Ms. Winfrey’s magic touch, OWN is going to have a hard time getting started. It will show up further down the cable lineup of most customers, and it will not have Ms. Winfrey’s full attention until at least September, when her daytime talk show goes off the air. “It’s going to be a gradual uphill—I wouldn’t say struggle—but road,” Mr. Freston said.
Mr. Freston and other executives have been managing expectations, reminding reporters and analysts that there will be failures at first. They have been more exuberant about what OWN means for the cable television industry, which is facing fresh competition on the Internet.
“Every single month, a cable operator must justify the price on the cable bill,” said Peter Liguori, the chief operating officer of Discovery. A prominent channel like OWN could help retain customers, some of whom may be thinking about cutting the cord and relying on a diet of lower-cost Internet video. For the most part, OWN programming will not be available online at no charge.
Ms. Winfrey has been learning firsthand about the cable business by dining with people like Michael White, the chairman and chief executive of DirecTV, and Glenn A. Britt, the chairman and chief executive of Time Warner Cable. A dinner with Mr. Britt, in mid-November at Del Posto in Manhattan, ended after midnight — and afterward Ms. Winfrey headed to Soho House, a private club nearby, for drinks with David M. Zaslav, chief executive of Discovery Communications.
“By bringing Oprah to cable, we’re bringing a big piece of value from the broadcast platform to the cable industry, and the cable industry is going to share in that,” Mr. Zaslav said.
Ms. Winfrey, for one, said she was not thinking about what her move from broadcast to cable means. Although she is emotional about the end of her talk show, “life goes on for everybody,” she said. “It was a television show, and television shows come and go. What’s more important is what is next.”