OWN Expands Reach

Oprah Winfrey's joint venture with Discovery seals a distribution deal with Comcast

The Oprah Winfrey Network has finally sealed a distribution deal with one of its largest holdouts: Philadelphia-based Comcast, the company that owns NBCUniversal. The deal may push OWN's number of subscribing households closer to the 80 million mark, but the exact number depends on where OWN sits on the dial for Comcast subscribers. Comcast has some 22.4 million subscribers, OWN isn't included in all of its packages. A report from SNL Kagan last month estimated OWN's distribution at 77.3 million subs at the end of 2011 and the network itself says that this gives it 79 million, so it's not much in the way of new subscribers, but it's a foot in the door and it's within spitting distance of the magic 80 million.

Distribution will likely help boost ratings for the struggling cable network, a joint venture between Oprah's company, Harpo, and Discovery Communications. OWN recently laid off some 30 employees and streamlined its operations, with Discovery veteran Neal Kirsch working as COO under the network's co-heads, Erik Logan and Sheri Salata.

As its upfront approaches later this week, Discovery needs to make a compelling case to ad buyers for keeping OWN around—that same Kagan report estimates that the cable network will be cash-flow negative again this year, to the tune of $142.9 million. A few shows on the network are starting to move the needle, notably Welcome to Sweetie Pie's, which logged its highest ratings so far during last night's season premiere, and Winfrey's own Oprah's Next Chapter, which got some attention for its Whitney Houston tribute episode.

Still, the network has a long way to go before it breaks even, and further still before it makes back the hundreds of millions of dollars Discovery has already sunk into it. Thursday's presentation should give some stronger indicators of which way the winds are blowing at the bigger of the two joint venture partners.