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Oprah Winfrey and OWN on the Ropes

TOO BIG TO FAIL? Chicago’s former media queen is struggling to save the network that bears her name. How things went so wrong—and how Oprah is handling the career challenge of her life

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Winfrey with former OWN CEO Christina Norman and Discovery CEO David Zaslav at OWN’s 2011 launch
Winfrey with former OWN CEO Christina Norman and Discovery CEO David Zaslav at OWN’s 2011 launch
 

Johnny Carson signed off modestly. Walter Cronkite bade his viewers a dignified, brief goodbye. Nobody in the history of the small screen has exited with the fanfare of Oprah Winfrey. A two-day extravaganza at the United Center, part circus, part star-studded tribute show, wound up her 25-year TV run—her “amazing journey,” as she put it. A parade of celebrities, from Madonna and Beyoncé to Tom Hanks and Diane Sawyer, feted Winfrey as 10,000 loyal fans whooped it up. “I won’t say goodbye,” she told the audience—the whole world, for that matter—at the end of her 4,561st show, which aired May 25, 2011. “Until we meet again.”

In fact, this wasn’t really a goodbye for Winfrey at all. By the time she said those words, her Oprah Winfrey Network had been up and running for nearly five months. And, oddly for a venture that feels so thrown together, it had been more than three full years in the planning.

Back in 2007, David Zaslav, the CEO of Discovery Communications, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, had shown up at Harpo’s studios in the West Loop. Discovery owns not only the namesake cable channel but also TLC and Animal Planet, and Zaslav had an idea for yet another network. Brandishing a copy of Winfrey’s O: The Oprah Magazine, published by Hearst, he pitched the idea of creating a televised version—an entire channel built around her inspirational mantra: “Live your best life.”

Zaslav was offering Winfrey the chance to dig even deeper into the mission that had brought her unparalleled success: helping women overcome the problems of their lives—bad boyfriends, ungrateful children, career failures, runaway debt, addictions to booze, food, you name it—and achieve some kind of grace. The genius of Winfrey was that she, personally, had done just that. It seemed that there wasn’t any trauma (sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy, financial hardship, obesity) she hadn’t experienced and triumphed over. Audiences loved her for it.

How could she resist Zaslav’s offer? Discovery was willing to invest $100 million in OWN, he said, and he wasn’t asking her to kick in a cent. He just wanted her name, her brand, and her golden instincts for programming. The network’s ownership and profits would be split 50-50 between Harpo and Discovery. Winfrey, Zaslav explained, would be the creative force, with full editorial control, and would also serve as the network’s chairwoman. He didn’t even insist that she be on the air much: only 35 hours a year.

When the duo announced the venture in January 2008, though, they didn’t make a big deal of the fact that fresh content starring Winfrey would be minimal. The network was trumpeted as an outlet to spread her iconic brand even wider. “Now I can do it 24 hours a day on a platform that goes on forever,” Winfrey crowed to reporters.

The following year, Zaslav returned to Chicago with bad news. Recession-weary advertisers were skittish, he told Winfrey, and OWN would need more involvement from her if it were to go forward. Plus, he said, she would have to give up The Oprah Winfrey Show. “I wasn’t pleased; I wasn’t pleased at all,” she told Fortune in 2010.

Zaslav offered her the chance to bail. But she didn’t. She doubled her airtime commitment to OWN to 70 hours a year and agreed to host Oprah’s Next Chapter, a new series in which she would travel around the world to interview local people. As Winfrey explained to Fortune, her commitment was guided, in part, by providence. She said that in 1992, her longtime boyfriend, Stedman Graham, told her that an Oprah-inspired cable network was her calling.

Distracted by the demands of her daily show, Winfrey wasn’t deeply engaged during OWN’s initial planning stages. Network execs decided that the schedule would be a mix of unscripted reality shows (which are relatively inexpensive to pump out) and talk shows. The latter would feature mostly Winfrey-made self-help gurus such as physician Mehmet Oz, relationship expert Phil McGraw, and money adviser Suze Orman. The Los Angeles Times TV critic, Mary McNamara, deemed the mix “a big ol’ pity party, with everyone too busy weeping into the low-fat clam dip to remember that it’s OK to can the violins and put on a little dance music once in awhile.”

Media analysts say that viewers were missing something else besides fun: Oprah herself. “The fact that the network was named after her led viewers to believe she would be in front of the camera and not behind the scenes,” says Brad Adgate of Horizon Media, a marketing strategy consultancy in New York.

More than one million people tuned in for OWN’s launch on New Year’s Day 2011, but since then the channel has averaged only 259,000 viewers in prime time, according to data from television ratings company Nielsen. That number is only a fraction of what OWN had projected to its advertisers.

It doesn’t help that the network is not available on basic cable, which means that only 80 percent of homes with cable and 67 percent of all homes have access to it. (Comcast currently pays nothing to air OWN, and Baine, of SNL Kagan, estimates that many other cable distributors pay 2 cents a month per household, far below the typical 20 to 25 cents that most networks charge.) Another drawback is that OWN airs on a high-number channel in most markets, so it’s hard to find, lost in a sea of stations. (In Chicago the network airs on channel 220 on Comcast and channel 279 on DirecTV.)

Whereas the syndicated Oprah show captured about seven million viewers daily, OWN’s original programs have typically drawn just a few hundred thousand each. Addicted to Food, a docu-series chronicling the challenges of eight seriously obese people, averaged only 126,000 viewers per episode. Breaking Down the Bars, a reality series about women in prison, didn’t even garner enough viewers to be rated by Nielsen. That means it was watched by fewer than 0.1 percent of viewers in its time slot.

Those numbers had to be excruciating for Winfrey. Long self-conscious about her image, she has never wanted her name associated with failure. Bill Zwecker, the veteran Sun-Times columnist, recalls asking why she didn’t put her name on the Chicago restaurant she opened in the late 1980s with restaurateur Rich Melman. According to Zwecker, Winfrey said, “The restaurant business is tricky. If it closed, I would never want someone to say, ‘Oprah’s restaurant closed.’” (The restaurant, named The Eccentric, did shut its doors after a respectable six-year run in River North.)

On CBS, Winfrey acknowledged to King and Rose that the negative media coverage surrounding OWN has been painful. One USA Today headline in particular—“Oprah Not Quite Standing on Her OWN”—felt like a dagger to the heart, she said, mimicking being stabbed. But she added, “I’m a very driven person.” No way was she going to let something called the Oprah Winfrey Network go under.

Less than two months after the last Oprah show wrapped, she made her move. OWN’s chief executive officer, Christina Norman, had been ousted in May. Winfrey decided to take the job herself. She brought with her Salata and Erik Logan, another former Harpo executive, and made them copresidents.

Winfrey had run a production company before, of course, but she had never run a network. If Zaslav was worried about her lack of experience, he wasn’t saying so. “Oprah’s now at the center of OWN,” he told Forbes in September. “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for.”

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Photograph: PR Newswire

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