Discovery Communications has paid $70 million to Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo, Inc. to acquire an additional 24.5% stake in the companies’ joint venture, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. With the transaction, Discovery has increased its ownership stake in OWN to more than 70%.
With the deal, Winfrey is cashing in on her involvement in OWN. According to Discovery, this is the first time Winfrey has received a payment from her company’s ownership stake in OWN in the 10 years since forming the joint venture with Discovery. Harpo will retain a “significant minority interest” in OWN and Winfrey will continue in her role as CEO. Her exclusivity contract with OWN, including as on-air personality, has been extended through 2025.
Discovery was quick to point out that the $70 million price tag on a 24.5% stake should not automatically peg OWN’s valuation at $280 million as it was agreed upon “after taking into account net debt at the network.”
The now successful OWN got off to a rocky start, with ratings struggles and executive turnover marking its first couple of years on the air until it found its groove with programming appealing to African American female viewers. The company raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in losses before starting to turn profit.
“Ten years ago, Oprah and I began to imagine what a network, inspired by her vision and values, could mean to viewers across the U.S.,” said David Zaslav, President and CEO of Discovery. “In an increasingly crowded landscape, OWN has emerged as the leading destination for African-American women and one of the strongest superfan brands across all screens and services. This transaction allows Discovery and Oprah to unlock more value from our partnership; extends once more her commitment to the network; and lets us continue our strong work together to nourish OWN viewers with the content they love.”
Launched in 2011, OWN has become the No. 1 network for African-American women with the top four original scripted series on ad-supported cable. Its roster includes hit dramas Queen Sugar and Greenlief, the top two original series on all of television Wednesday nights for African-American viewers. Following a long partnership with Tyler Perry, which delivered OWN’s first scripted hits, led by The Haves and the Have Nots, the network forged relationships with such top writer-producers including as Ava DuVernay, Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, Academy Award-winning Moonlight writer/producer Tarell Alvin McCraney and prolific filmmaker Will Packer.
“Creating OWN and seeing it flourish, supported by Discovery and a rapidly growing group of the finest storytellers in film and television, is one of my proudest achievements,” said Winfrey. “I’m thrilled with the network’s success and excited about this next chapter in our partnership. Together, we’ll continue to inspire our viewers with real-life stories that are emotional and entertaining, connecting them to each other and to their greatest potential.”
Discovery is increasing its stake in OWN as it looks to complete its acquisition of fellow cable programmer Scripps in early 2018, whose stable including Food Network and HGTV will be combined with Discovery’s portfolio of female-focused networks, including TLC, ID and OWN. That gives Discovery five of the top pay-TV networks for women, representing 20% share of women watching primetime pay-TV in the U.S.
“I’m excited for OWN to be part of Discovery in a deeper, more meaningful way and for the opportunity this unlocks for our future,” said Erik Logan, President, OWN. “Our network has achieved what most people thought was impossible and as we look toward the future, now more than ever, we are poised for continued success.”
Wall Street is not especially enamored of the Scripps deal. Discovery’s stock rebounded today (it’s up 5% in afternoon trading), but at $20.44 it has plunged more than 30% in 2017. Many investors and analysts have questioned the strategy of bulking up on the programming side at a moment when TV content is facing an unprecedented level of competition and disruption from deep-pocketed digital rivals.
Even if the premise of adding content is viable, there have been questions about the pricetag. Rich Greenfield, an analyst with BTIG, has estimated that Discovery overpaid by 20% to 30%, leading him to ask in a recent blog post, “Can Scripps be renegotiated?”
Discovery Communications was advised by Allen & Company LLC and Grubman Shire Meiselas & Sacks, P.C. Harpo, Inc. was advised by Moelis & Company LLC and Loeb & Loeb LLP.