Discovery CFO Bradley Singer couldn’t have been surprised to be asked at Citigroup’s Global Media, Entertainment and Telecommunications Conference about what’s up with OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. Bankers and investors are still waiting to see significant progress at Discovery’s struggling, high-profile joint venture with the talk show host and entrepreneur. But his answer was also familiar: Wait. Now that Oprah’s running the operation “we feel real good about the direction the network is headed in. It’s just building block after building block.” The channel’s financial prospects, he added, depend on how well it can build its viewing audience.
Most of the other questions were a lot easier considering that Discovery has one of the highest profit margins in cable programming. Singer says the ad market continues to improve. “We have not been impacted yet by anything you might read” about weakness in the overall economy. Meanwhile channels that have taken off over the last year, led by ID: Investigation Discovery, have “that much room to grow in terms of advertising.” He’s also optimistic about The Hub, the joint venture with Hasbro. “Long term, that could be a successful network.” Discovery is still assessing TV Everywhere — pay TV providers’ efforts to offer channels to mobile devices. “There’s still some complexity,” including questions about how mobile viewing will be measured, he says. “The deals that appear to have been done — and none of them are public — wrap the economics into an overall deal” by operators to carry channels on conventional TV. Singer left open the possibility that Discovery will spend more of its cash on a new or existing venture. “The goal of the company is to create value,” not necessarily to increase profit margins, he said. “You generally don’t want to do things (that depress) returns. But sometimes you have to.”