Oprah Winfrey backs Canada's Corus

Venture will be force of light for Canadians, she says

TORONTO – In the growing battle between Canadian broadcasters for female TV viewers, Oprah Winfrey has cast her vote.

"Hi Canada," the U.S. TV queen said Thursday night on a giant screen inside Corus Entertainment's new Toronto broadcast facility.

A day after Corus said it will launch OWN -- The Oprah Winfrey Network north of the border in spring 2011 as OWN Canada, the media maven said via a taped video that her joint venture with Discovery Communications will be "a force of light" for Canadians and "will awaken people to be the best of themselves."

But besides the dream-weaving for her Canadian audience, Winfrey gave a shout-out to Toronto-based Corus for its superior brand marketing of femme-friendly TV channels, underlining why the broadcaster prevailed in a local beauty contest for the Canadian licensing rights to OWN – The Oprah Winfrey Network.

 Scott Dyer, the chief technology officer at Corus, said launching OWN Canada is part of his network's plan to become Canada's dominant women's TV provider.

"She [Winfrey] and her team recognized Corus was the only place to go," he said after his network prevailed against rivals for the Canadian rights to the U.S.-based OWN channel.

That track record in female-skewing viewing includes W, Canada's cable women's channel, and off-shoots like Cosmo, which saw Corus license the Cosmo brand from Hearst Corp., and Viva, which targets female baby boomers.

And Corus isn't stopping at Oprah Winfrey in its quest for female-themed channels.

Network CEO John Cassaday earlier this week said he'd like to talk to Shaw Communications about possibly buying Food Network Canada and HGTV Canada after the cable giant completes a deal to purchase Canwest Global Communications Corp. for $2 billion.

Shaw Communications is is looking to take Canwest Global's TV business out of creditor protection, and purchase Goldman Sachs and Co.'s 65% stake in 13 cable channels, including the Canadian HGTV and Food Network services, for around $700 million.
 
Lucky for Cassaday, the Shaw family of Calgary has a majority stake in Corus and Shaw Communications.

And while CanWest is to operate as a separate division from Corus and Shaw Communications under a new president, Paul Robertson, most recently president of Corus' TV division, Cassaday appears to be betting that the Shaw family will eventually be able to consolidate the Corus and Canwest Global TV assets to compete against American entertainment behemoths like Google TV and Apple TV on the horizon.

"An obvious option [for the Shaws] would be for at some point a move made to consolidate the assets," Cassaday told the Montreal Gazette newspaper this week in an interview.

Executives at Canwest Global, while recognizing Cassaday's interest in their prized assets, insist HGTV Canada and Food Network Canada are not for sale, and will be groomed for still-greater growth after Shaw takes control of the assets.

"There are no plans to divest them (HGTV and Food Network) to Corus or anyone else," a Canwest Broadcasting spokesman said Friday.

Any move by the Shaw family to propose the sale of Food Network Canada and HGTV Canada to Corus would meet with significant challenges.

Separate ownership structures for Corus and Shaw Communications remove the possibility of a simple swap of assets.

Instead, any potential sale would call for a formal transaction with new change of control hearings before the CRTC, the country's broadcast regulator already wary of market concentration in the domestic TV sector.

There are precedents. Corus, which was spun-off by Shaw Communications in 1999 into a separate broadcast division, in 2001 acquired from Shaw the Women's Television Network, before the female-themed channel was relaunched a year later by Corus as W.

WTN had come to Shaw Communications as part of a wider deal for the rival cable operator Moffat Communications.

Whether Corus and Canwest global eventually merge, or Cassaday gets his mitts on the coveted Food Network Canada and HGTV Canada channel brands, the continuing battle for female TV viewers has all the elements that impress domestic advertisers: campaigns, demos, contests, and high-impact programming like OWN Canada.

Corus' Dyer insists OWN Canada will propel his network's strategy to offer programming that allows advertiser brands to speak directly to women viewers.

"She [Oprah] is an unbelievable brand, an iconic brand," he said minutes after the U.S. TV chat show queen left Corus' giant screen backdrop in Toronto, and months before Winfrey launches her new media venture on Jan. 1 south of the border.
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