Oprah Winfrey cable network hires CEO

The Oprah Winfrey Network has a new favorite thing: longtime marketer Christina Norman, who was hired Thursday as chief executive.

Norman spent 17 years with Viacom Inc.'s MTV cable empire before stepping down last year as MTV president. Before that, she ran its sister channel, VH-1.

As chief executive of OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, Norman, 45, will oversee the business and programming functions for the TV channel and Internet site.

Although Winfrey and Discovery Communications Inc. announced their joint venture, OWN, a year ago, the top job remained open as they interviewed candidates and hired other members of the management team.


Norman initially discussed the CEO position with the owners last spring, “but the timing wasn’t right,” she said in an interview. Then last Friday, she accepted the job.

“It’s an incredible opportunity and a great time to be starting a new network when so much is changing,” she said.

A launch date has not been set for the channel, which will replace the Discovery Health Channel, other than early 2010. Little is known about the venture’s programming plans, including how much of an on-screen role the chairwoman, Winfrey, will have as she continues to host her daily talk show for ABC -- including her coveted “favorite things” audience gifts -- through May 2011.

Channel executives are expected to give advertisers a glimpse of their programming plans in March.

“As with any new cable network launch, it’s always a challenge to get advertisers to sign on,” said Chris Neel, director of national broadcast for ad firm Initiative. “Certainly Oprah is a known quantity so that will help them, but the network won’t have Oprah 24/7.”

The weakening economy, which has damped advertising spending, might be another obstacle. But Neel said OWN would have the advantage of being available in 70 million homes at launch, more than double the number for most start-up channels.

Said Norman: “We need to have a spirit of innovation, and that will help us. We’ve seen that people who take risks in times like these are the ones who are rewarded.”