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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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Illustration by John Ueland

It was an uncharacteristically humble Oprah Winfrey who appeared on CBS This Morning in early April, looking tired, even a little frumpy, in a pearl-gray dress. Her pose was tense, her expression uneasy. While the 58-year-old has spent God knows how many hours on a TV talk show set over her long broadcasting career, she looked like a familiar species in the wrong habitat.

Luckily she was in friendly territory. Her BFF of more than 30 years, Gayle King, one of the show’s cohosts, was just an arm’s length away. And Winfrey needed a friend. Because after some brief banter, the other host, veteran newsman and interviewer Charlie Rose, quickly turned to a fresh and sore subject. “Let’s start talking about OWN,” he said.

Winfrey winced. “Oof,” she grunted. Then, just like that, the TV pro and Oscar-nominated actress—who, according to the celebrity writer Kitty Kelley’s 2010 tell-all biography, knew from a young age that she would be a great actor—flashed her winning smile and started the damage control.

As most Americans know by now, Winfrey’s bold new cable venture, the Oprah Winfrey Network, is in major trouble barely a year into its launch. Eviscerated by media critics and plagued by low ratings, it is burning through both money and people. OWN’s marquee daily talk show, hosted by Rosie O’Donnell and canceled in March after five months, is just the most visible wreckage. Derek Baine, a media analyst at SNL Kagan, says that the network—a partnership between Harpo (Winfrey’s production company) and Discovery Communications—is on track to lose $143 million this year after a $107 million loss in 2011. Discovery will likely have to write off a big chunk of its more than $300 million investment in the network, Baine predicts, and Harpo may bear some of the losses going forward.

During the CBS interview, Winfrey confessed that starting OWN while she was still finishing up her 25-year run of The Oprah Winfrey Show in Chicago was a bad move. “Had I known it was this difficult, I might have done something else,” she said. “If I were writing a book about it, I could call the book 101 Mistakes.” Pressed by Rose to name the top five mistakes OWN made, Winfrey listed just one: “Launching when we really weren’t ready to launch.”

That’s for sure, say media analysts and critics, who have dissected the network’s every decision (with more than a little schadenfreude, Winfrey has grumbled). Relying mostly on reality shows, reruns, prepackaged clips from old Oprah episodes, and familiar faces from that show—including King, who decamped for the CBS hosting gig in January—OWN’s programming has a slapped-together quality. By most accounts, Winfrey and Discovery’s most serious error was in underestimating the difficulty of creating an entirely new network around a single personality—the first time in television history that such a thing had been attempted.

Unhappy endings and the Queen of All Media don’t usually appear on the same program. Before now, Winfrey’s rise from a hard-knock childhood in segregated Kosciusko, Mississippi, to the pinnacle of wealth and power (her reported net worth: $2.7 billion) has made a rocket look slow. Now, for the first time, her reputation is in a swoon. Only 26 percent of women in her key 25-to-54 viewer group say they currently have a favorable impression of her, down from the low 30s last summer and from a career high of about 45 percent in the 1990s, according to research company Q Scores.

This year, for the first time since 1999, Winfrey was omitted from Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. And she is increasingly fodder for gossip and comedy. On a recent Saturday Night Live sketch that was posted online, Maya Rudolph played a self-absorbed Oprah bragging about OWN’s new programming: NCIS: Oprah, a show where she solves crimes at Harpo, and Hawaii Five-Oprah.

It’s hard to tell how Winfrey is handling all this. Despite having lived so much in the public eye—and having made her reputation as an Everywoman who chats with strangers on the Michigan Avenue bus—in the past decade or so she has become fiercely private. She has walled herself off from everyone but a few loyal friends and confidants, a potentially risky move for someone whose success depends on a keen feel for the pulse of the masses.

Nearly everybody around her, from current and former staffers to (reportedly) her dog walkers, is required to sign a confidentiality agreement, and she declined to speak to Chicago for this story. But interviews with colleagues, friends, and media experts suggest that Winfrey—who stepped in as OWN’s CEO last July amid a revolving door of top executives—takes OWN’s crisis personally. That she’ll do whatever it takes to turn the network around.

Can she pull it off? OWN copresident Sheri Salata, who has worked closely with Winfrey for almost 17 years, says she has never seen her boss so focused. “She is more centered now,” Salata says, “than the day of the [Oprah] finale.”

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Photography: (Winfrey) Krista Kennell/SIPA Press via AP; (King) John Amis/AP; (O’Donnell) Evan Agostini/AP; (McGraw) Charles Sykes/AP; Illustration: John Ueland


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