may be one of the most famous, wealthy and powerful people in the world, but she still took a risk with her Oprah Winfrey Network cable TV channel. While Winfrey has earned her spot on the list of 10 TV legends
, that's not made her immune to the struggles of building an audience for OWN.
Photo © Getty Images for Ralph Lauren
For 25 years, the syndicated Oprah Winfrey Show
was appointment television for millions of Americans. The question Winfrey faced in launching her Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) cable TV channel in 2011 was whether viewers who'd give her one hour of their time on weekdays could be turned into loyal viewers for her 24-hour a day channel. Bigger questions were whether these people, who made Winfrey a billionaire, could find OWN on their cable TV system and if they'd be satisfied watching Winfrey's channel without seeing much of Winfrey herself on it.
Only two months after OWN first appeared on cable TV, it was already obvious that this project was going to be tough. Oprah Winfrey might be one of the 11 media people to watch in 2011
, but that didn't translate into automatic viewership for OWN. The biggest challenge during this time is that Winfrey was also still broadcasting The Oprah Winfrey Show
, which didn't end its 25-year run until later in 2011. It was exceedingly difficult to wind down the TV show that made her famous while also trying to shift her attention and her audience toward OWN.
It's easy to dismiss pop music's Lady Gaga for her shocking wardrobe and behavior. But Forbes
magazine put her atop its 2011 "Celebrity 100" list, knocking Oprah Winfrey to runner-up status. The magazine credited Lady Gaga's ability to draw 32 million Facebook fans and 10 million Twitter followers. Suddenly, Winfrey looked like a person from another era, when TV was the best way to reach an audience. Social media trends
made cable TV look like a dinosaur as younger audiences turned toward mobile devices to get information instead of plopping on a couch. It's just another sign that anyone working in the media industry needs a social media policy
to avoid getting left behind.
The summer of 2011 marked an unthinkable low point for the Oprah Winfrey Network, when it fell to 73rd in the cable TV Nielsen ratings
among viewers in its target audience. All the news stories about the launch of OWN should have generated enough interest for viewers to at least sample the programming. One problem was that Winfrey wasn't making regular appearances on OWN shows. In naming herself CEO, she was putting herself at greater risk by spending her time behind the scenes rather than in front of the camera. To top it off, her magazine also reported a huge drop in advertising sales.
October 2011 presented OWN with the first chance at a traditional fall premiere for its shows. Oprah Winfrey listened to the critics and put herself on camera for Oprah's Lifeclass
, which revisits topics from her 25-year talk show run. She chose Rosie O'Donnell to host the lead-in program, called The Rosie Show
. The strategy is a gamble -- if having Winfrey on camera doesn't fix OWN's ratings woes, it wouldn't leave many other options. If it worked, the temptation would be to have a 24-hour day of Winfrey's face appearing on all OWN programs, which would dilute her impact and test her endurance.
Oprah Winfrey's staff and media critics weren't looking for a celebration to mark OWN's first year, but a commitment. They got it. Winfrey said she remained dedicated to making the cable TV channel a success, and proved it by adding Oprah's Next Chapter
to the program lineup. OWN's first year was marked by big numbers -- not in ratings, but expenses. A report said OWN burned $135 million on program costs in 2011, compared to $29 million for Discovery Health, the channel it replaced. The problem is that the audience size stayed about the same. With the dawn of a new year, Winfrey is one of the 10 media people to watch
in 2012, as fans, media critics and TV insiders all watch to see if she can solve OWN's problems.
Finally, a glimpse of hope appears at OWN. Oprah's Next Chapter
, which is a prime time
interview show that Winfrey hosts, achieved meaningful Nielsen ratings, as did an episode of Oprah's Master Class
. Clearly, Winfrey's face is needed for OWN's programming to break through the clutter of cable TV. People in the target demographics
are noticing OWN. The channel plans to debut three new shows during 2012 to try to build upon this momentary success.
The signs of life at OWN are dealt a setback when Oprah Winfrey gets a double dose of discouraging news. First, a report says she came under fire for the way she used Twitter to build her media brand
. The issue is how she blatantly sought viewers being tracked by Nielsen to watch OWN. That's an obvious no-no to anyone who has ever worked in TV, and Nielsen noticed. Also, a new tracking report showed that newsstand sales for her magazine plunged 32%. Even someone with Winfrey's management and branding abilities would be stretched to the breaking point trying to fix issues with print and television properties.
The troubles keep mounting for the Oprah Winfrey Network. Not only has The Rosie Show
been canceled after much tinkering with its format, but OWN has suffered a significant layoff of staff members. According to a report, OWN's work force has dropped to about 90 people, or about the same number as a TV station in a small to medium DMA
. The report says costs have now hit $300 million. While no one is saying publicly that they want to call it quits, the layoffs signal there are problems not just with ratings, but with maintaining viability as a business venture.