Oprah Winfrey Network Still Finding Its Footing

Dec 30, 2011
Originally published on December 30, 2011 1:28 pm

Ratings have been a major disappointment for the Oprah Winfrey Network, but that could change now that Oprah Winfrey is about to debut her own show on the cable channel.

When Winfrey ended her longtime show on broadcast TV earlier this year, there were lots of tears and endless tributes to the queen of daytime talk.

She shifted focus to OWN, a joint venture between her Harpo Productions and Discovery. The channel, which marks its anniversary Sunday, is a 24-hour mixed bag that includes repackaged Oprah Winfrey shows, cooking and reality shows, and documentaries.

OWN took over the space that belonged to Discovery Health, which struggled to find an audience. Almost everyone thought Winfrey's network would easily outdo it.

"And that simply hasn't happened," says Larry Gerbrandt, an analyst with Media Valuation Partners.

"With the Oprah brand name, with all the work they did leading into the launch of the network, the hope and the expectation was that they would be on a much faster track than usual," Gerbrandt says.

'Harder Than I Ever Imagined'

But it was a rough first year.

OWN's ratings nose-dived soon after its launch.

In May, the CEO was shown the door. Oprah herself said it might have been better to wait until her broadcast show ended before launching the channel. In July, she named herself CEO.

Even a new show with Rosie O'Donnell hasn't pumped up the ratings.

One place that attracts Winfrey's core audience — women — and where the TV is on all the time is Patsy's Nail Bar in Washington, D.C. At Patsy's, Winfrey's daytime talk show has been replaced by The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

As her nails are being done, Dianna Montas says OWN lacks consistency.

"I watched a couple of things," she says, "[but] not as often, because, now it's like, all over the place, and it's not as focused as her own show."

Winfrey has been candid about the problems. In September, she did a live webchat with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and admitted that running a network is nothing like doing your own show.

"It's very different choosing other shows and trying to feel, will this work? Will that not work?" Winfrey said. "I would say it's a lot harder than I ever imagined. If anyone says, 'Do you want a network?' Think about that!"

Finding A Signature

Gerbrandt says cable is such a different animal from broadcast. For starters, people can't find OWN.

And the network doesn't yet have a signature show, Gerbrandt says, "something that will make you say, 'Ah yes, I know that one is on OWN.' "

"Without that," he says, "you have nothing to build around."

It's fair to say that anything Winfrey does gets extra scrutiny. She is, after all, one of the most influential women in the world. But even for her, it may take years before this cable channel is a success, OWN President Erik Logan says.

"This is a very long journey," Logan says. "I think that if you look at any successful cable network, it's taken years for them to find their programming rhythm. It's taken years for them to establish themselves. And Oprah's the first to say, 'We're still learning.' "

As for that signature show that OWN needs, it could be the one that debuts this weekend starring the CEO herself: Oprah's Next Chapter.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When Oprah Winfrey ended her show on broadcast TV earlier this year, there were many tears and endless tributes to the queen of daytime talk. She left to focus on OWN - O-W-N - the Oprah Winfrey Network. The first of the year marks the cable channel's first anniversary, but the ratings so far have been a major disappointment. So now, Oprah herself is about to debut a new show. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: OWN is a joint venture between Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions and Discovery. It's a 24-hour mixed bag.

(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS OWN PROGRAMS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We're going to make Mongolian beef.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Maybe for the first time, the pain of these wounded warriors.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: We've been trying to open a third Sweetie Pie location for two years.

OPRAH WINFREY: And for that reason, I'm going to help you rebuild your school. I'm donating a million and a half dollars.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BLAIR: OWN took over the space that belonged to Discovery Health, a channel that struggled to find an audience. And most everyone thought Oprah's network would easily outdo it.

LARRY GERBRANDT: And that simply hasn't happened.

BLAIR: Larry Gerbrandt is an analyst with Media Valuation Partners.

GERBRANDT: With the Oprah brand name, with all the work they did leading into the launch of the network, the hope and expectation was that they would be on a much faster track than usual.

BLAIR: It was a rough first year. OWN's ratings quickly nose-dived after its launch. In May, the CEO was shown the door. Oprah herself said it might have been better to wait until after ending her daytime broadcast show before launching the channel. In July, she named herself CEO. But even a new show with Rosie O'Donnell hasn't pumped up the ratings.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ROSIE SHOW")

ROSIE O'DONNELL: I know what' you're thinking. Rosie, you're wearing a poncho again.

BLAIR: It's hardly scientific, but I went to a place that attracts Oprah's core audience - women - and where the TV is on all the time - Patsy's Nail Bar in Washington, D.C., where Oprah's daytime talk show has been replaced by Ellen DeGeneres. As her nails are being done, Diane Montas says OWN lacks consistency.

DIANE MONTAS: Yeah, I watched a couple of things, not as often because it's - now it's like, all over the place, and it's not as focused as her own show.

BLAIR: Oprah Winfrey has been candid about the problems. She did a live Web chat with Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook, not the CEO.] She admitted that running a network is nothing like doing your own show.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEB CHAT)

WINFREY: It's very different choosing other shows and trying to feel, will this work; will that not work? So it's, I would say, a lot harder than I ever imagined. If anybody asks you if you want a network, think about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: So what's the problem? Larry Gerbrandt says cable is such a different animal than broadcast. So for starters, people can't find OWN. And they don't yet have a signature show.

GERBRANDT: Something that you can say ah, yes, I know that one is on OWN. And without that, you have nothing to build around.

BLAIR: Now, it's fair to say that anything Oprah Winfrey does gets extra scrutiny. She is, after all, one of the most influential women in the world. But even for her, it may take years before this cable channel is a success, says Erik Logan, president of OWN.

ERIK LOGAN: This is a very long journey. And I think if you look at any successful cable network, it's taken years for them to find their programming rhythm. It's taken years for them to establish themselves, you know. And Oprah's the first to say, you know, we're still learning.

BLAIR: And as for that signature show that OWN needs, it could be the one that debuts this weekend, starring the CEO herself. It's called "Oprah's Next Chapter."

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.