Oprah's Debut Advances Black Media Ownership

When a flick of the switch Saturday activates OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, making it available in 85 million homes, another marker will be laid in the quest for media ownership by people of color.

The new lifestyle channel — called the most-watched experiment in the television industry — will be available in both standard and high-definition on what is now the Discovery Health channel.


Discovery will retain 50 percent ownership of OWN, while Winfrey's production company, Harpo, will control the other 50 percent, according to theStreet.com.

As the Project for Excellence in Journalism noted in its 2009 report, "the State of the Media," "black ownership of television still has some considerable distance to go.

"Advertising Age reported in April that out of 1,379 commercial TV stations, only eight stations are owned by African Americans. . . .

"One study, by Free Press, a non-profit that promotes diversity in media ownership, found that African Americans comprised 13% of the U.S. population but only owned 1.3% of its TV stations in 2006. Furthermore, the study found that there had been no improvement in the level of minority ownership in television since 1998."

The scarcity of black ownership on cable pushed activists to pressure Comcast to add more black-owned networks to its system as a price for supporting its pending acquisition of NBCU. They met with limited success.

"The top three owners of African-American-targeted cable channels are TV One and media behemoths Time Warner and Viacom, who both own three such channels [apiece]," Pharoh Martin of the National Newspaper Publishers Association wrote in May, quoting the Pew study.


Unlike BET, TV One or the defunct Black Family Channel, OWN is aiming for a general audience, very much like other Winfrey ventures.

"Not specifically religious, but vaguely spiritual and faith-filled, the new Oprah Winfrey Network is — like its namesake — all about uplift," Joanne Ostrow wrote Friday in the Denver Post.


"Uplifting advice, uplifting household tips, uplifting examples from celebrity lives. The new channel is a thematically unified effort at self-improvement, heaving us, hoisting us to a better place, 24/7 on cable television."

Like BET and TV One, however, Winfrey could not crack the world of cable television without an inside partner. In this case, he was David Zaslav, chief executive of Discovery Communications.


"OWN’s three-year gestation has been unusually arduous,Brian Stelter wrote in the New York Times on Dec. 18, reconstructing OWN's creation. "Early on, Ms. Winfrey’s partner in the joint venture, Discovery Communications, grew frustrated, and as boardroom tensions boiled over early last year she considered backing out altogether. The relationship has improved markedly since then. But as recently as late November, some producers working with OWN still doubted that the channel would actually come to life in January. . . ."

Stelter wrote that Zaslav, then Discovery's new chief executive, "surveyed the dozen channels that Discovery owned — he liked to call it beachfront real estate — for areas of growth" in the winter of 2007. "He concluded that the Discovery Health Channel should be first in line for remodeling. . . .


"Mr. Zaslav’s epiphany for an Oprah-branded channel came at his suburban New York home, while he was flipping through his wife’s copy of O: The Oprah Magazine, the hugely successful joint venture between Ms. Winfrey and Hearst. His wife, Pam, had a habit of attaching Post-it notes to its pages, which got Mr. Zaslav thinking about Ms. Winfrey’s enduring brand.

" 'Oprah and her magazine stand for this idea — a shared idea we all have — a shared hope we all have,' he says, 'of living your best life.' He could think of no equivalent on cable television. After barely three months on the job, he requested a meeting with Ms. Winfrey through her agents at the Creative Artists Agency.


"For the 50-50 joint venture with Ms. Winfrey, which was announced in January 2008, Discovery proffered its health channel and $100 million in start-up cash. Ms. Winfrey contributed her brand name, her 25-year library and her Web site, Oprah.com. . . ."

Negotiations and discussions of such cable-specific issues as carriage rates and subscription fees followed.


OWN's own "best life" includes profitability.

"David Miller of Caris & Co., an equity research firm, predicts that OWN will operate at a loss in 2011 and 2012, and will break even by mid-2013." Theresa McCabe wrote for theStreet.com. "He forecasts that the network will pull in $100 million from advertisements in 2011, but that it will spend $85 million on programming and another $40 million on marketing."


Stelter wrote, "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."

Eric Deggans, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times: Oprah Winfrey Network: Is the world ready for her message around the clock? 


Eric Deggans blog, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times: Oprah Winfrey's OWN channel: Can the Queen of All Media rule cable as well? 

Lynne Elber, Associated Press: Media blitz preps viewers for Oprah OWN channel 

Meg James, Los Angeles Times: OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network launches with high expectations


Jennifer E. Mabry, theRoot.com: Oprah's OWN Missed Opportunity

Brian Stelter, New York Times: Shaping a Network With Oprah’s View 

StopBigMedia.org: Out of The Picture: Minority & Female TV Station Ownership in the United States (PDF) (2006) 


Miki Turner, Jet: Oprah still OWN audience loyalty?

Scott Sisters Saga Labeled "Underreported Story"

The plight of the Scott sisters, two black Mississippi women who they said had been framed and unjustly imprisoned over an $11 robbery, headed the list of underreported stories for 2010 on BlackAmericaWeb.com, posted before Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour suspended their sentences later in the day.


However, as Susan Donaldson James reported Friday for ABC News, "As jubilant supporters await the release of Gladys and Jamie Scott, who brokered a bargain with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to get early prison release by undergoing an organ transplant, medical ethicists are crying foul.

"Ethicists say suspending a prison sentence on the condition that one sister give the other a kidney is a 'quid pro quo' and threatens the ethical underpinnings of living donation laws."


Bob Herbert, the New York Times columnist who helped bring the case to national attention, told readers, "I got a call on New Year’s Eve from Gladys Scott, which was a terrific way for 2010 to end."

"I’ve waited so long for this day to come," Scott told Herbert.

Other stories on the list, compiled by Jackie Jones, were Georgia's inmate protests, the debacle involving the unjust firing of Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod, drug sentencing disparities, the foreclosure crisis, black Republican victories, terrorists' inroads in Africa and rape as a war tactic.


Year's end saw other assessments:

Jenice Armstrong, Philadelphia Daily News: Remembering those who got to me, and to you, this year 


Michael Calderone, Yahoo News: Top five media launches for 2011 

Eric Deggans blog, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times: Top 10 TV and media stories of 2010, Part 1: The war for control of your TV screen 


Eric Deggans blog, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times: Top 10 media stories of 2010 Part II: Rise of the individual as a media brand 

Richard Deitsch, Sports Illustrated: Honoring best, worst from TV, radio, print, online 


Editorial, La Opinión, Los Angeles: A Mixed Year for Latinos 

Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting: Smell Something Rotten? 2010 P.U.-litzer Prizes recognize the worst of U.S. journalism 


Jackie Jones and Michael H. Cottman, BlackAmericaWeb.com: What a Year: Scandals That Shocked, Rocked 2010 

Jerry Large, Seattle Times: A year full of good people

Sophia A. Nelson, theGrio.com: Why Gov. Barbour had to free Scott sisters

E.R. Shipp, theRoot.com: Let's Not Give Haley Barbour Too Much Praise

How to Put Some Color in Those Online J-Conferences

"It's been a couple of weeks since Tim O'Reilly's News Foo rolled into the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Phoenix, and while I truly enjoyed thinking big thoughts with big thinkers about the direction of our industry, I couldn't help but notice how lacking in diversity the invitation-only gathering was," veteran online journalist Retha Hill wrote Tuesday for the PBS Idea Lab.


"The same thing could be said for the Online News Association conference held in Washington, D.C., the end of October. True, there were a lot more brown faces at this last gathering than six or seven years ago when Ju-Don Roberts, then a senior editor at [Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive], and I were the only African Americans in the room. The lack of diversity at ONA '10 was the subject of a brief but heated conversation between some National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) members, a few of whom wanted to 'do something' about it, like call ONA's leadership out.

". . . I'm not one to see problems without thinking of solutions, so in light of a new year coming upon us, let's collectively make some resolutions when it comes to diversity in this new media that we are building:

"When planning conferences and panels, resolve to expand beyond your trusted go-to group of presenters to a more diverse set. If you don't know whom to invite, ask and I'll make sure I give you some names. . . .  


"Go young: BET.com, MTV.com, Allhiphop.com to name a few are a wonderful source for millennials who have experience in interactive content and news. I am happy to see ONA launching a youth initiative as a tribute to one of its founding members, MJ Bear, who passed away in December. It was one of her last wishes. 

"NABJ, NAHJ, AAJA and NAJA, let's make sure this summer's conventions are steeped in innovation and new media training for our members. It's nearly 2011 and media are evolving and we need to make sure we evolve with it." The references are to the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association.


"Site managers please look at your staffs. If they are all white, resolve to diversify whether by hiring experienced persons of color or growing your own. I had to build an entire staff of culturally aware content producers in 1999 when BET.com launched at a time when the number of African Americans in new media was woefully small. So I trained black and Latino hip-hop magazine writers, BET television producers and young people straight out of Howard and Hampton universities in new media. Many of them are now leaders at new media companies across the country."

In a stream of vigorous online responses, Christine Montgomery, president of the Online News Association, thanked Hill for her suggestions, said "board member Katharine Fong is leading a committee to help us figure out how to make the organization more diverse in meaningful ways," and that "we know we have work to do."