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Oprah's success hasn't followed her to OWN

Oprah Winfrey's cable network, born 15 months ago, has struggled, with executive turnover, ego clashes and low ratings plaguing the venture. But those involved say they're optimistic.

March 31, 2012|By Meg James and Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times
  • Oprah Winfrey is getting more face time on her OWN cable channel, with shows like "Oprah's Next Chapter."
Oprah Winfrey is getting more face time on her OWN cable channel, with shows… (Julie Jacobson, Associated…)

"A queen is not afraid to fail," Oprah Winfrey once said. "Failure is another steppingstone to greatness."

Now the television queen may have a chance to prove the adage. Her Los Angeles-based Oprah Winfrey Network has been hobbled by missteps, ego clashes, a revolving door in the executive suite and, most important, low ratings.

OWN's stumbles suggest, at the least, that even in celebrity-obsessed America, fame alone doesn't guarantee success.

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The network was born 15 months ago with high hopes of becoming the television equivalent of Winfrey's O magazine. It paired the star who transformed a daytime talk show into a multibillion-dollar empire with the cable powerhouse Discovery, the parent of Discovery, TLC and Animal Planet.

Both parties assumed that the 6 million fans who still watched Oprah's talk show in syndication, which aired its finale in May 2011, would flock to her cable channel.

But sustaining an entire network proved difficult.

More than 1 million viewers arrived for the network's debut on New Year's Day 2011. But since that first weekend, OWN has averaged just 259,000 viewers in prime time, according to Nielsen. Reruns of the 1980s sitcom "The Golden Girls" on the Hallmark Channel draw almost twice as big an audience.

Earlier this month, OWN pulled the plug on one of its biggest and most expensive bets — an evening talk show starring Rosie O'Donnell. Last week, OWN fired 20% of its workforce after Winfrey and Discovery, which so far has invested $312 million in the channel, agreed to slash spending to keep the network afloat.

Interviews with numerous executives who have been associated with the network paint a portrait of a channel that was dysfunctional from Day 1. Consumed with ending her long-running daytime talk show in Chicago with a bang, Winfrey was disengaged during crucial planning stages. Across the country, her staff in L.A. struggled to figure out how to translate Winfrey's personality or essence, what they called the "Oprah DNA," into compelling programming.

The challenge: striking a balance between Winfrey's desire for "life-affirming" programming and the flashy, trashy "Real Housewives" and "Jersey Shore"-type shows that deliver big ratings. Complicating matters was that Discovery concentrates on nonfiction programming, eliminating scripted comedies and dramas from the mix.

"The biggest mistake they made was they launched the channel too early," said Derek Baine, cable analyst with SNL Kagan, who this month calculated that OWN would lose as much as $142.9 million this year. "They put a lot of money into marketing the channel, but it wasn't fully baked. They were driving people to test a product that was broken."

The disintegration of "The Rosie Show" is a good example of what went wrong. O'Donnell was wooed back to television by a $20-million, two-year deal, but her show quickly veered off the rails.

Although O'Donnell had hosted successful talk shows from New York City, OWN moved her show to Chicago so the network could utilize Winfrey's set and production crew. But without Winfrey's ratings and clout, the Chicago locale made it difficult to lure A-list guests, who were reluctant to leave the traditional Los Angeles-New York talk show circuit for the Windy City. O'Donnell, a Broadway aficionado, also spent loads of money flying in the casts of musicals from New York to appear on her show.

O'Donnell clashed with Winfrey's production team, sometimes even berating them in front of the studio audience, according to people close to the show. Within three months, O'Donnell scrapped the set, the studio audience, the band and some of Winfrey's people — much to the chagrin of the network.

None of it raised ratings. The show averaged 185,000 viewers and lasted just six months.

"I thought it would be easy for me, but it wasn't," O'Donnell told viewers last week. "We really started off the wrong way. We were trying to do a little of what we did 15 years ago … but you can't go back." A spokeswoman for O'Donnell declined further comment.

OWN has suffered most from the absence of programming featuring Oprah herself, and could have benefited from a return of her successful daily talk show. But Winfrey was determined to leave the daily grind and wanted to expand from the starring to producing role. Viewers did not follow.

"Her name was not enough," said Eleanor Townsley, a sociology professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. "Her syndicated show reached a mass audience; it was universal. But cable is a very different place. It was only the true believer who followed her to cable."

Despite the turmoil, Discovery executives say they are optimistic about OWN's future. They note that viewership has risen recently, with more programs starring Winfrey on the network schedule.

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