Oprah’s Harpo Films Inks HBO Deal

Oprah Winfrey’s new media frontier? Pay cable.

After 20 years at ABC, Winfrey’s Harpo Films has inked a three-year exclusive deal with HBO to develop and produce scripted programming, including series, miniseries, movies and documentaries.

“This is truly a dream come true for us,” Harpo Films president Kate Forte said. “It’s part of the natural evolution of our company.”

Harpo’s deal with HBO was sealed after two meetings — one at CAA, which reps Harpo, and one at Winfrey’s estate in Montecito, Calif.

“It sounds corny, but it was almost love at first sight,” HBO’s West Coast chief Michael Lombardo said. “The more we talked, the more we realized that our companies are very similar in sensibilities.”

The pact starts Jan. 1, after the expiration of Harpo’s current first-look longform pact with ABC.

As part of Harpo’s long-term relationship with ABC, the company produced a slew of acclaimed and highly rated TV movies and miniseries under the Oprah Winfrey Presents banner, including the Emmy-winning Tuesdays With Morrie and “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Harpo also made its first foray into unscripted programming on ABC this year with Oprah’s Big Give, produced by Harpo Prods.

ABC approached Winfrey and Forte about extending their deal, but Harpo opted to go to HBO.

“ABC was always incredibly supportive of us. It is much more about the opportunity HBO offers us,” Forte said. “There are natural limitations to network TV, including being driven by ratings and commercial sponsorship.”

With the longform genre close to extinction at the broadcast networks, it also is understandable for Winfrey to look for a new partner, with the dominant player in the field, HBO, being a natural choice. While Harpo used to produce at least one TV movie for ABC every year, the frequency decreased in the past decade, with only two films premiering in the past seven years.

Forte declined to elaborate on the type of programming Harpo will develop for HBO but said it would be “an eclectic mix.”

On the feature side, Harpo Films recently produced The Great Debaters, directed by and starring Denzel Washington.

Additionally, Winfrey’s umbrella company Harpo Inc. is set to launch OWN, a basic cable network focused on unscripted programming done in partnership with Discovery Communications. Meanwhile, Harpo Prods. is behind several syndicated talk shows, including its flagship, The Oprah Winfrey Show.