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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's Next Chapter" has drawn respectable ratings. The high point, with 3.5 million viewers, was an episode in which she interviewed Whitney Houston's 19-year-old daughter in the aftermath of the singer's death.

"Oprah's Lifeclass: The Tour" debuted Monday night. Broadcast live from various locations, the show is designed to showcase Winfrey's inspirational chats with other luminaries.

"I'm much more encouraged now than I've ever been," said David Zaslav, Discovery chief executive. "It takes a while to figure out who your audience is and how to nurture it. It's not going to happen in a heartbeat."

Winfrey now is pursuing "big gets," which have long been her bread and butter. She interviewed a South Carolina mother, Shaquan Duley, who confessed to killing her two children, for an upcoming episode of "Oprah's Next Chapter," and has expressed interest in interviewing George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch volunteer who shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin last month.

Winfrey, who declined to comment for this article, assumed the title of chief executive in July, a move seen as an attempt to stabilize a channel that has lost more than a dozen senior executives.

OWN's first chief executive, Christina Norman, a former president of MTV, left last spring — just four months after the channel launched. She had clashed with Lisa Erspamer, a Winfrey loyalist sent to Los Angeles from Chicago to help infuse the programming with Winfrey's point of view. Erspamer eventually was sent packing too.

Discovery dispatched its chief operating officer, Peter Liguori, a former programming executive for News Corp.'s Fox and FX networks, to bolster OWN and its programming. Liguori's assessment that the network needed more quality programming — and not just the aura of Oprah — was received poorly by those close to Winfrey, according to people familiar with the matter.

Winfrey shooed Liguori out the door and installed Erik Logan and Sheri Salata, the top executives from her Chicago-based production company, as the new presidents of OWN. Neither has experience running a cable network. Most current and former OWN executives signed nondisclosure agreements that prohibit speaking publicly about Winfrey or the network.

One of OWN's problems is that it is difficult for viewers to find. The network even has a website to help viewers find the correct channel. Locally, the channel is 219 on Time Warner Cable.

OWN's bottom line is expected to improve in 2013. Cable networks have two revenue streams — advertising dollars and subscriber fees. Starting next year, many cable and satellite distributors will beginning paying to carry OWN, at an initial cost of about 20 cents per subscriber per month. That is on par with Bravo and more than HGTV, Oxygen and WE, all channels that are chasing female viewers.

The network is also bringing back two promising programs, the news magazine "Our America With Lisa Ling" and "Welcome to Sweetie Pie's," a show about a popular family-run St. Louis soul food restaurant. Last week, Winfrey stopped by to appear in the show.

"All of us — including Oprah — believe in this network," Logan said. "We have good momentum in the ratings and new shows that we are excited about. We've right-sized our business financially, and now have sound business fundamentals beneath us."

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