Discovery Needs You Back, Oprah!

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With a personal net worth that Forbes estimates at $1.4 billion and rising, there's no disputing Oprah Winfrey's bonafides as an empire builder. But can she thrive now, in the era of my-size-fits-me programming delivered digitally?

Her history of beating the odds says yes. But with CBS (NYSE: CBS  ) , Walt Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) ABC, Fox, and virtually every other network operator thrown off by the rise of digital distribution, Oprah -- an old-school operator with cash and a mission -- is going to have to buck a serious trend.

She's failed so far. OWN, or Oprah Winfrey Network, has been a ratings underperformer for Discovery Communications (Nasdaq: DISCA  ) , which operates the network as a joint venture with Winfrey's Harpo Entertainment.

The platinum touch
Can you blame Oprah for being bold? I can't. Thanks to her massive following, she's become the patron saint of TV talk and attendant consumerism, resulting in a magic touch capable of producing huge gains for investors. Remember when she endorsed Ugg boots? Shares of Deckers Outdoor (Nasdaq: DECK  ) took off. (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) enjoyed a similar rally when CEO Jeff Bezos was on her show to talk about what was then the latest Kindle.

But lately, Oprah hasn't been herself. OWN has struggled to please viewers used to seeing her pointing and yelling, "You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car!" She's stepped away from the screen, opting instead to turn OWN into a portfolio of shows built around people Oprah finds interesting. Here's a look at some of the network’s headliners:

  1. Finding Sarah, profiling the emotional, financial, and physical struggles of Sarah Ferguson, the former Duchess of York.
  2. Ryan & Tatum: The O'Neals, which documents the trials of a Hollywood father and daughter as they attempt to reconcile after years of being estranged.
  3. Oprah: Behind the Scenes, a serial documentary that examines all that went into producing the Queen of Talk's 25th and final season hosting her namesake show.

On the whole, ratings have suffered, and OWN's first CEO, Christina Norman, was replaced after just five months on the job. Today, Discovery Communications Chief Operating Officer Peter Liguori acts as interim CEO -- with Winfrey pulling strings behind the scenes, no doubt.

Oprah's big bet is bigger than you think
For its part, Discovery isn't taking chances. Earlier this year, the company changed the way it accounts for OWN. Yes, it's still a joint venture, but now it's one in which Oprah has more to lose because of an asset transfer:

On January 1, 2011, we contributed the domestic Discovery Health network to OWN. … Following the contribution, we no longer consolidate the domestic Discovery Health network. Additionally, net losses generated by OWN will be allocated to both joint venture partners based on their proportionate ownership interests, which are 50-50. Previously, we recognized 100% of OWN’s net losses. Future net income generated by OWN will initially be allocated 100% to us up to the amount of net losses previously recognized by us prior to the contribution. After we have recouped our losses, any excess net income will be allocated to both joint venture partners based on their proportionate ownership interests. [Emphasis added.]

See the change? Discovery is no longer alone in taking the hit should OWN programs fail to deliver promised profits. What's more, all profits go to Discovery until the network is made whole from earlier investments.

Come back, Oprah!
I've watched the Oprah show with my wife enough times to know that viewers don't tune in for the guests; they tune in for the host. As National Public Radio critic Eric Deggans wrote after a day of watching OWN: "The channel needs more Oprah and more distinctive programming."

Discovery's investors can only hope. Do you agree? Disagree? Please vote in the poll below and then leave a comment to tell us whether you think OWN is creating value for Discovery. You can also add Discovery Communications to your watchlist for up-to-date analysis as soon as it's published.

Fool contributorTim Beyers is a member of theMotley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team. He owned shares of Walt Disney at the time of publication. Check out Tim'sportfolio holdings andFoolish writings, or connect with him on Google+ or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insightsdelivered directly to your RSS reader.

Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Walt Disney,, and Deckers Outdoor. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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  • Report this Comment On July 12, 2011, at 6:47 PM, esxokm wrote:

    Actually, the Foolish thing for OWN to do would be to not feature any more Oprah. Here's why.

    "The Oprah Winfrey Show" essentially derived 100% of its value from Oprah Winfrey herself.

    The OWN asset would be better off not depending on Winfrey because it would represent too much risk to shareholers. Presumably, Winfrey wants to create an asset that will allow her to put together a collection of shows she believes can work on their own. Otherwise, what was the point of leaving her talk show?

    What shareholders should be hoping for is the ability to leverage Winfrey's expertise in media to synthesize a thriving center of profit based in the cable universe. Her main focus should be on finding concepts that can create a new brand in the marketplace. So far, it hasn't worked. But it's a long-term game, and if execs panic and have Winfrey do another talk show, they will probably find that it won't be as successful. It's also, by its very nature, can't program a variation of the Oprah show 24 hours per day, seven days per week.

    Think of WWE as an analogous situation. For WWE to grow, one could argue that it needs to invest in other areas that do not depend on wrestling. Making films is one avenue. Although the company still insists on featuring its wrestling talent in its underperforming (so far) celluloid efforts, I would assume that, over time, that aspect will lose emphasis in favor of exploiting concepts that are not tied to the squared circle.

    OWN should find its own identity, its own brand. It should find its killer app, its Jon-and-Kate, its Jersey-Shore, to drive results and bring in some free cash flow. Once that happens, the added flexibility will allow for some comprehensive strategizing in terms of the channel's future.

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