By Jessica Shambora
January 5, 2009

Long live Oprah Winfrey. Her TV syndication contract expires in 2011, but that doesn’t mean she’ll go off the air then. Oprah is right now busy preparing to launch her own TV network — one of the more anticipated media projects of the year. (It’s supposed to launch in late ’09 or early next year.)

It’s also one of the more secretive. But watch this space, and you’ll learn a bit about it in the coming weeks. Oprah’s focus at this early stage is acquiring the talent to build the Oprah Winfrey Network, OWN, as she’s calling it.

Step one was hooking up with David Zaslav, the CEO of Discovery Networks

, who pitched the idea to Oprah with the notion that she could well use a vehicle to carry on her legacy after the Oprah Winfrey Show is done. Guaranteed creative control, Oprah embraced the offer of a 50-50 partnership with Discovery, and now she’s exercising her sway.

Her talent hunt features some well-known execs. Oprah spent the past two years, no less, pursuing former Viacom

CEO Tom Freston. The man who built MTVĀ  and the Viacom cable empire (Nickelodeon, VH-1, Comedy Central, BET) has been off just about everybody’s radar since Viacom chairman Summer Redstone ousted him on Labor Day of 2006. Not Oprah’s, though. She’s brought him on as a consultant to OWN, though that title understates his deep involvement in the start-up. Oprah also talked to MTV Networks boss (and former Freston protege) Judy McGrath and Susan Lyne, Martha Stewart’s

former CEO and now chief of Gilt Groupe, about coming on board. But neither of them wanted to move to Los Angeles, where Oprah has set up OWN’s offices.

Oprah has picked Robin Schwartz, former president of Regency Television and once VP of programming at Disney’s

ABC Family, to be OWN’s president. The digital boss — a key role since OWN’s online content should be as rich as the cable channel — is Rob Tercek, who started in cable as a creative director for MTV, moved to Sony

and recently was CMO of Mforma, a publisher of entertainment content for mobile phones.

And starting at OWN today: Liz Dolan as CMO, pictured at left. Her name may be familiar to you since back in the ’90s she was the head of global marketing at Nike

. I’ve known Liz for 20 years, ever since she joined Nike in 1988 when the company launched “Just do it.” Liz certainly knows how to create an emotional connection between a brand and consumers.

Since Liz left Nike in 1997, she’s been working with her four sisters, doing a radio show called Satellite Sisters. Think “The View” on radio. That show ended in November, though Satellite Sisters is still online at www.satellitesisters.com. Working with her sisters, Liz says, assured her that “it’s possible to create entertainment and information programming that’s positive and fun and inspirational.”

“There is no finish line,” as Liz’s former boss, Nike founder Phil Knight, has always said. LivesĀ and careers evolve. Seems like this evolution — building a network that’s all about “living your best life,” as Oprah says — is right for these dire but hopeful times.

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