After huge losses, mass layoffs and ridiculously low ratings, can Oprah fix her failing network — or is it already too late?
While promoting the launch of the Oprah Winfrey Network back in January 2011, Oprah described her fledgling network as “a new kind of television where people would respond to the idea of something meaningful and positive in their lives, not just feeding them sweetness, but feeding them something that could be nurturing for their spirit, for their soul, for their mind — mind food.”
As she would soon discover, “mind food” gets lousy ratings. There’s a reason why A&E — which ostensibly stands for Arts & Entertainment — ditched opera and ballet for Dog the Bounty Hunter, and TLC — once known as The Learning Channel — has become the modern-day equivalent of the carnival sideshow, home to such bottom-feeding dreck as My Strange Addiction, Sister Wives and Hoarders.
This also explains why, after more than a year on the air, OWN is averaging an anemic 180,000 U.S. viewers per day, a number that’s downright catastrophic given the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been pumped into it.
During a recent interview with BFF Gayle King on CBS This Morning, Oprah acknowledged her biggest mistake was launching the network while she was consumed with ending her talk show — to which anyone who had been paying attention could only respond, “Well, duh.”
How could she not have seen that coming? Not only did this prevent Oprah from devoting much attention to OWN, it ensured she was practically a non-presence on her own network. Viewers tuned in, turned off and dropped out once they realized the Oprah Winfrey Network had hardly any Oprah on it.
As the months went on, the network introduced a string of touchy-feely “celebreality” shows, but none of these did much beyond proving viewers didn’t really care all that much about Shania Twain’s personal heartbreak or Chaz Bono’s journey to manhood. To make matters worse, the big-ticket “get” of Rosie O’Donnell’s talk-show return was a spectacular flop that was cancelled after a few miserable months. When the dust settled, OWN was forced to lay off 30 staffers after racking up a loss of US$140 million within its last fiscal year.
Unfortunately, OWN’s biggest problem may the very thing that was supposed to make it different. By launching a network Oprah said would be “based on my philosophy, my ideas,” she mistakenly assumed simply stamping her name on a network would cause people to watch it.
It’s telling that OWN’s highest-rated show to date has been the Oprah’s Lifeclass interview with Whitney Houston’s daughter, Bobbi Christina, which brought in 3.5 million viewers — OK, but not great (SpongeBob SquarePants gets higher ratings). It’s even more telling that the following week’s episode, featuring her mega-hyped interview with Lady Gaga, only attracted 800,000. That’s a serious drop-off, and does not bode well for future viewership.
The question that now emerges is whether abandoning her daily talk-show pulpit and venturing into the wilderness of cable has cost Oprah her most valuable commodity: relevance.
That remains to be seen, and although things may seem bleak for OWN, let’s not forget who we’re talking about. Anyone who underestimates Oprah Winfrey is, frankly, an idiot. If anybody can fix the problems at OWN, daunting though they may be, it’s Oprah.
Watch this video of Jimmy Kimmel pitching ideas to OWN: