WHEN MEDIA MOGUL Oprah Winfrey bid farewell to 25 years of The Oprah Winfrey Show in May, she left viewers with a cliff-hanger. “I won’t say good-bye,” Winfrey said on her final show. “Until we meet again.”
But the promise of that glorified gathering place on her glittering new cable network, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, has fallen short of expectations. OWN’s 24-hour-a-day programming launched on Jan. 1 in 80 million homes as a partnership between Winfrey’s Harpo production company and cable programming powerhouse Discovery Communications. The goal was to remake a forgotten, high-numbered cable channel into Oprah-branded gold. Ratings quickly tanked. Chief Executive Christina Norman was shown the door in May. Winfrey became the chair, CEO and chief creative officer in July. Now the pressure is on Oprah to save TV’s feel-good network.
Winfrey admitted to fans on Facebook that OWN hadn’t found its flow because she and her staff had been too focused on ending the syndicated Oprah TV show. (Winfrey declined an interview with FORBES.) Critics argue that the issues run deeper. Since OWN’s launch in January its average prime-time audience dropped 37% to 250,000 viewers in July, according to Nielsen. An average of 109,000 viewers tuned in on an all-day basis that month—just one-third of the viewership expected by advertisers.
Robert Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University, believes OWN launched too early, without enough programming. The shows it does have are weak, he says. Adding to the troubles: OWN is difficult to find on the channel guide. “Some people thought anything Oprah introduced would be a hit. She could introduce the chicken pox, and people would want to get it,” says Thompson. “We now know Oprah’s name isn’t enough.”
Discovery Communications Chief Executive David Zaslav, who approached Winfrey with the idea for an Oprah-inspired network in 2007 and subsequently okayed pumping nearly $200 million into it, says he isn’t worried by the lower-than-expected ratings. “It’s going to take time,” Zaslav insists. “There is no cable channel that launches from nowhere to immediate success.”
Zaslav has pushed for more involvement from Oprah. He persuaded Winfrey to double her on-air time in 2009, before the launch. With Winfrey in charge, “Oprah’s now at the center of OWN,” Zaslav beams. “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for.”
Winfrey may be one of the media industry’s best brand managers, but can she rise to the role of a programming executive? On Aug. 1, after spending her first full week focused on the channel, she told fans that while she wasn’t “frazzled” by OWN’s performance, managing it turned out to be one of her biggest challenges. “It’s ten times harder than doing my daily show,” she said in a Facebook note. “Doing that show felt like breathing every day. Now I’m in so many meetings I sometimes have to step out and catch a breath.”
Part of Winfrey’s new strategy is integrating OWN’s staff in L.A. with Harpo’s staff in Chicago. “One team, one heart,” goes the mantra. Harpo presidents Sheri Salata and Erik Logan were tapped as OWN presidents in July and will lead both teams. Instead of chasing ratings, Salata and Logan plan to focus their attention on brand-consistent programming and hope better ratings will follow. “We feel very bullish that we will deliver on the commitments that we have in the marketplace,” says Logan.
Zaslav, too, maintains that advertisers— OWN launched with about ten blue-chip ad clients that had signed multiyear deals—have been incredibly supportive. Of them, Target, Kellogg’s and Procter & Gamble declined to comment. A General Motors representative says GM remains committed to OWN.
Some close OWN watchers warn that advertisers’ support has just about reached its limit. Derek Baine, a senior analyst at media research firm SNL Kagan, says OWN’s ratings have sometimes been lower than the ratings for the Discovery Health channel, which preceded OWN on the same channel number. “If we get to the end of the year and ratings are still terrible, then it’s a big problem. Advertisers will pull back on their commitments.”
That means Winfrey has to work fast to ensure OWN’s new programming— scheduled to launch Oct. 10— catches on. After all, even with her $2.7 billion net worth Oprah can’t subsidize a cable network indefinitely. OWN executives are placing most of their hopes on a daily talk show, The Rosie Show, hosted by comedienne Rosie O’Donnell, and a rehash of the Oprah show, called Oprah’s Lifeclass. The latter will use select clips from the 4,561 Oprah episodes, along with new footage of Winfrey sharing personal revelations and life lessons. “At my core I’m a teacher, masquerading as a talk show host. And now I’ll have a nightly class on OWN,” Winfrey said on Facebook.
In January a second show hosted by Winfrey, Oprah’s Next Chapter, will follow her around the world as she interviews high-profile subjects. “All it takes is a couple of big hits,” says Syracuse University’s Thompson. “The really important question is, can Oprah still do a hit show?”
It’s a bet that Winfrey, with Zaslav’s backing, is willing to make. With the cable property valued as high as $1 billion, it’s no small risk. “We’re making a lot of progress,” says Zaslav. “Watch out for us over the next two to three years. We’re going to make a big splash, and we’re going to have a big impact.”