LOS ANGELES (AP) — Oprah Winfrey earned the rare opportunity to convert her media charisma into a monogramed TV channel. Now she's the one tasked with rescuing OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, after a disappointing first year.
It's a high-stakes, potentially ego-shattering challenge that could make the strongest woman or man flinch. But, win or lose, Winfrey says she relishes the fight to turn OWN's fortunes around.
The cable channel, which marked its first year Jan. 1, is trying for a fresh start after executive turnover and missteps that proved OWN lacked a solid foundation on which to build, despite a Discovery Communications investment of a reported $250 million and counting.
Viewers snubbed the lineup that skimped on programming and, surprisingly, what should have been OWN's unique weapon of choice: Winfrey herself. Her limited on-air presence is being boosted with a new weekly series, Oprah's Next Chapter.
OWN has failed to improve on, and, in some instances even match, the modest ratings and small audience earned by the low-profile Discovery Health channel it replaced.
Winfrey, who said management team errors in planning and execution could serve as a cautionary tale (“I was never interested in writing a book. … This could be a book.”), rejects the idea that a single year's performance will determine OWN's ultimate fate. Or hers.
“Somebody was talking to me in that kind of saddened, ‘How are you?’ tone and I was thinking, ‘I'm fine,’” said Winfrey, 57, who ruled as the queen of daytime TV until she ended her talk show after 25 years and turned her attention to OWN.
Year two for OWN will reflect executive changes made last July, when Winfrey expanded her role at the channel by adding the roles of chief executive and chief creative officer to her position as chairman.
Although the channel's ownership is split evenly between Discovery and Winfrey's Chicago-based production company Harpo Inc., it is Discovery's money that's on the line.
With more scheduling consistency, movies, original series with and without Winfrey and “a lot more Oprah in general,” Discovery is “a lot more confident that we're heading in the right direction,” said company spokesman David Leavy.
The initially slight programming lineup is being beefed up, most notably with Oprah's Next Chapter which turns the once studio-bound Winfrey into a globe-trotting interviewer who drops into the home of a Hasidic Jewish family in New York, George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch in California and cook Paula Deen's Georgia estate. There is also a trip with Sean Penn to Haiti, fire-walking with Tony Robbins and a planned India trip with Deepak Chopra.
OWN has averaged about 136,000 viewers a day, a drop of eight percent from what Discovery Health drew in 2010, although it's up slightly in total viewers in prime time and has seen an eight percent increase among women ages 25 to 54, part of the channel's hoped-for demographic.
Winfrey also is on-air with Oprah's Lifeclass which draws on her talk-show archives, and Oprah's Master Class, a series of high-achiever biography specials. But, she said, she never “was supposed to carry the channel on my back and it never was supposed to be about me being on the air as much as possible.” Instead, O magazine, with Winfrey as monthly cover girl and articles reflecting her better-life philosophy, is the intended model.
She attributes the channel's rough start to a more basic error: the lack of a “library” of programming for the many hours of airtime not filled by original shows, compounded by overconfidence about her market value in general.
Winfrey claims to have an unlikely sounding Plan B if the channel falls short: “If this doesn't work out, I'm going to go into organic farming in Maui. And I'm not kidding.”
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Photo: Oprah Winfrey