Discovery unveils OWN slate

Oprah Winfrey network focus to be 'Best Life'

NEW YORK -- Discovery Communications on Thursday offered media buyers their first look at what's being touted as the biggest idea since MTV, taking the wraps off the inaugural programming slate for the startup OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, which features several regulars from "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Speaking at Discovery's upfront presentation, OWN CEO Christina Norman said the channel's programming is being built around three central empowering themes: Best Life All Stars, Best Life Experiences and Best Life Inspiration.

Among the All Stars projects: a Harpo-produced strip helmed by frequent Oprah guest Peter Walsh, who makes his living as a professional organizer/clutter-buster; a one-hour sex and relationships talk show led by Sirius XM radio host Dr. Laura Berman; and the newsmagazine "Lisa Ling Investigates."

The Inspirational leg of the tripod includes a docu-soap about a former competitive surfer and the Harpo-produced "Master Class," a series that in Winfrey's estimation, profiles "the most extraordinary people of our time." Guests expected to appear include Jerry Seinfeld, Tiger Woods and Sidney Poitier.

OWN's full launch schedule, a mix of original and acquired programs including strips, specials and theatricals, will be announced later this year.

And despite the wobbly economy, "It's a great time to launch a new network," Norman said.

During the two-hour event, established Discovery brands TLC and Animal Planet and emerging nets like Science Channel and Investigation Discovery announced a slew of new and returning series. (The flagship Discovery Channel didn't introduce any new shows, citing the desire to keep its competition in the dark.)

Following the surprise appearance by Jennifer Lopez at last year's presentation, TLC had another star attraction -- US Airways Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, the pilot who on Jan. 15 saved the lives of 154 passengers and crew members by successfully landing his plane in the Hudson River.

Sullenberger, who will be profiled in the one-hour TLC documentary "Brace for Impact," received a two-minute standing ovation.

TLC's 19 new series planned for the 2009-10 season include "The Little Couple," based on the hit special "Little People: Just Married," as well as two shows from Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos: the Ripa-starring "Mom Inc.," a co-production with HSN featuring aspiring entrepreneur housewives, and "Eat, Drink and Be Married," about a family running a wedding business.

The channel's other new marriage series are "Wedded to Perfection" and "Wild Weddings."

TLC's new fashion series include "Freakin Fabulous with Clinton Kelly" and "Making Over America with Trinny and Susannah," which feature the original U.K. hosts of "What Not To Wear."

New real estate shows "The General," "Restorer Guy" and "Stager Invasion" are in the works as well as "The Ultimate Cake Off" and "The Police Women Project."

The stable of returning TLC series is led by "Jon & Kate Plus 8", which has been renewed for a fifth season after hitting series highs with the recent fourth season finale.

Animal Planet took the wraps off a batch of new series, including "Cowboys," "Bio-Recon" and "iPredator."

Discovery's upfront show closed with a walk-through with flagship president and general manager John Ford, who presented clips from new specials like Life, a 10-part doc series from the people who brought you Planet Earth; Before America, an ultra-retro look at what Manhattan was like back when it was inhabited by wooly mammoths and Engineering the Universe, a CGI-heavy reconstruction about the creation of matter that Discovery characterizes as "a look under the cosmic hood."

All told, Discovery Communications has a good deal of momentum on its side as it heads into the upfront bazaar, as ratings are up practically across the board. In the first quarter of 2009, the Discovery networks group grew its prime-time delivery of adults 18-49 by 5% year-over-year, versus an aggregate cable average of -1% and a broadcast average of -2%.

Pali analyst Rich Greenfield on Wednesday told investors that while his team anticipates that Discovery's revenue growth will slow in 2009, "a combination of continued ratings strength (which will mitigate the pressure from advertising declines), strong gains in subscription fees (as Discovery's digital networks gain greater distribution) and continued margin improvement will mitigate the impact of a weak economy."

Greenfield also said that Pali expects that Discovery will "notably outperform its peers in terms of ad growth and earnings growth in 2009," noting that the company's Q4 '08 ad sales revenues grew 6% to $282 million, up from $265 million in the year-ago period. By comparison, Viacom was down 3% in the quarter and ESPN declined by "high-single digit percentage."

For more coverage, check out AdweekMedia Upfront 2009