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Winfrey's Armstrong interview comes at key time for OWN

Winfrey outmaneuvered bigger networks to land the interview with the disgraced cyclist. Her network, which averages just 329,000 viewers a night, needs more of what her staff calls the 'Oprah DNA.'

January 17, 2013|By Meg James and Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times
  • OWN staffers say the "Oprah DNA" is needed to help boost the struggling network.
OWN staffers say the "Oprah DNA" is needed to help boost the struggling… (Courtesy of Harpo Studios )

Lance Armstrong will face millions of Oprah Winfrey fans Thursday night in a play to restore his tarnished image.

But Winfrey has as much to gain as the disgraced Tour de France champion cyclist.

Since conceiving the Los Angeles-based Oprah Winfrey Network five years ago, the former talk show empress has burned through $300 million and almost a dozen top managers trying to reengage the 10 million fans who long ago flocked to her daily daytime open house.

Viewers have had trouble finding OWN on their TV and cable systems. Aside from a handful of high-profile interviews conducted by Winfrey, viewers have shown little interest in most of the network's programming.

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"Oprah and Lance Armstrong: The Worldwide Exclusive" may be Winfrey's best opportunity to stay in the national conversation.

"For the past 25 years, the thought of helping Oprah was absurd — Oprah helped everyone else's career," said Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC School of Cinematic Arts. "She wasn't the one who needed the help."

From the onset, Winfrey's OWN has been vexed by missteps, ego clashes, a revolving door in the executive suite and anemic ratings. Originally envisioned as the television equivalent of Winfrey's O magazine, and an expansion of her hugely successful syndicated talk show, Winfrey found a partner and bankroll in cable powerhouse Discovery Communications, the parent of Discovery, TLC and Animal Planet.

But during first months after the network's January 2011 launch, Winfrey was absent — consumed with ending her long-running daytime talk show in Chicago — while in Los Angeles her staff struggled to translate what they called the "Oprah DNA" into compelling programming. In summer 2011, Winfrey interrupted her vacation plans to become the network's chief executive.

On an average night, OWN draws 329,000 viewers, according to ratings firm Nielsen — roughly a 10th of the audience of a popular cable show like A&E's "Duck Dynasty."

Now, to boost the flagging network, Winfrey herself may be becoming more … Oprah.

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In her heyday as a talk show hostess, she showed particular talent for landing and handling difficult interviews — including celebrated sessions with Michael Jackson, Nelson Mandela, Tom Cruise and "Million Little Pieces" author James Frey.

"When people want to tell their story, they go to Oprah," said Brent Poer, president of the Los Angeles advertising firm Liquid Thread. "These interviews are core to the network and Oprah's brand, and it is Oprah at her best."

In landing Armstrong, OWN beat the major networks for the prize.

"CBS This Morning" aired a special Winfrey interview to tease details of the Armstrong interview only after network executives failed to convince the cyclist to tell his story there. The network assumed that its past coverage on "60 Minutes" and its newly launched sports investigation show "60 Minutes Sports," on the CBS-owned Showtime, knocked it out of contention.

Armstrong "saw us as too adversarial," said CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager. "Good for Oprah for getting the interview."

Winfrey, who declined an interview request, told "CBS This Morning" that she began courting Armstrong last fall, by email, and then followed up before the holidays. Their agreement to do the interview came while they were vacationing separately in Hawaii.

Then, armed with 112 questions, she met the cyclist in an Austin, Texas, hotel Monday for a 21/2-hour interview. Fearful that outtakes of the session would leak, Winfrey refused to transmit the footage via satellite and instead carried the tapes in her purse back to her Chicago studio.

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OWN's early plan to air the interview as a single 90-minute special expanded into two nights, beginning Thursday and concluding Friday. To ensure fans could find it, Winfrey in her CBS interview encouraged viewers to go to her website to find the channel in their area.

She followed up Tuesday by sending the link to her nearly 16 million Twitter followers.

In addition to the two-night broadcast, the interview will be streamed to viewers worldwide on Discovery Communications — the programming giant that co-owns and has bankrolled the nascent OWN — plans to simultaneously broadcast the interview on channels it owns in 210 countries, and later translate it into 45 languages, to extend the interview's life.

It's not a make-or-break moment for the 58-year-old TV mogul, who was once America's highest-paid female entertainer, and in 2012 had a fortune estimated by Forbes at $2.7 billion. But it has put her and her network back on the U.S. entertainment map.

"It is exciting to see Oprah demonstrate to the world that she can get these must-see interviews," said Erik Logan, president of OWN. "You now see a network that has made a turn and is exhibiting growth."

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