Oprah Winfrey, right, talks with Paula Zahn at the National Cable &… (Paul Beaty, Associated…)
Reporting from Chicago — Oprah Winfrey has acknowledged that launching her own cable channel has been more difficult than she expected.
But now that her syndicated talk show has ended after 25 years, Winfrey said she plans to devote herself to overhauling OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, which has struggled to find an audience.
That means Winfrey will be spending more time in Los Angeles, the headquarters of the channel, which is a joint venture with Discovery Communications Inc.
"The vacation that I thought that I was going to have is over," Winfrey said Thursday before a crowd of about 1,000 people attending the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. convention in Chicago.
"I need to be there. I need to be engaged and involved," Winfrey said.
The network started off with a bang in January, but soon witnessed a troubling exodus of viewers. There were few compelling shows on the channel, not enough to hold people's interest. Last month, as ratings sagged, Winfrey and Discovery ousted the channel's chief executive, Christina Norman, the former president of MTV.
Discovery's chief operating officer, Peter Liguori, stepped in to run the channel on an interim basis. Executives involved with OWN now wonder whether they launched the venture before it was ready, and at a time when Winfrey herself was grabbing viewers' attention with her high-profile final episodes of "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
Since its launch, OWN has been averaging fewer than 300,000 viewers in prime time, according to Nielsen Co. The final episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in late May drew 16.4 million viewers.
The problem with OWN so far, Winfrey conceded Thursday, was that she didn't have "one single space of energy left" to devote to the start-up while she was taping the final season of her talk show. She was consumed with giving her program the send-off that she felt it deserved.
"If I were to do it over again, I'd probably do it differently," Winfrey said of OWN's launch. Because she told viewers she had a new cable channel, people showed up with high expectations — not expecting to see a work in progress. But she said she was determined to make it work.
"I have committed everything I have to this cable venture," Winfrey said. "I wouldn't bet against me."
Discovery, which has plowed more than $250 million into the OWN venture, has been encouraged with an uptick in viewers in recent weeks, particularly since Winfrey signed off her syndicated show. During the first week of June, among the channel's target audience of women aged 25 to 54, OWN outdrew the Discovery Health Channel, which OWN replaced.
In January, she plans to launch a two- or three-day-a-week show, "Oprah's Next Chapter," that will contain her signature interviews.
When Investigation Discovery journalist Paula Zahn asked Winfrey which guests she would like to land for her new channel, she said there were two.
She said she would like to interview Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to life in prison for drowning her two young sons in a lake, so she could explain her thinking and actions.
But Winfrey's biggest coup would be getting O.J. Simpson to appear.
"I have a dream of O.J. Simpson confessing to me," Winfrey said. But she said she would not accept just any interview. Before she would agree to a sit-down, Winfrey said, the former football great would have to be ready to confess to killing his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in 1994. (Simpson was acquitted of the murders in 1995.)
"I want the interview on the condition that you are ready, Mr. Simpson," Winfrey said. "And I am going to make that happen, people."