Now that Oprah Winfrey has aired her final show, you can bet she’s not kicking back and enjoying some downtime. It’s time for the aspiring cable mogul to roll up her sleeves and fix OWN, which ousted its president just four months after launch due to the channel’s anemic ratings.
Subbing in Discovery Networks COO Peter Liguori, who has experience turning around a cable network at News Corp.’s FX, as interim president is going to please impatient advertisers and affiliates. But a leadership change doesn’t truly get at the heart of what’s wrong with OWN. There’s a few relatively simple cures for turning around the network that are so obvious my guess is Winfrey and Discovery are already making it happen.
First, the network needs more of Oprah herself.
OWN thought it could get away with simply distilling many of the themes that go into Winfrey’s appeal–female empowerment, bouncing back from adversity, to name a few–and sprinkle them across the programming lineup. But if the opening months of OWN have taught us anything, that’s just not going to cut it.
Viewers want to see Winfrey. Discovery was kidding itself if it thought OWN could succeed by just borrowing Winfrey’s playbook and letting other players run her routes while the star quarterback kicked her feet up inside the skybox.
If anything, the ratings softness OWN is currently experiencing may be less reflective of problems inherent in the programming mix and have more to do with simple dashed expectations: Viewers may have checked OWN in its opening days in hopes of experiencing the woman herself only to feel cheated by the fact that the network isn’t really about her.
No wonder the OWN series “Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes” is far and away the network’s most popular program. It’s the only show on the channel that is about really about Winfrey herself.
Instead, the channel’s current stars seem to be Shania Twain, Wynonna and Naomi Judd, and soon, Sarah Ferguson. They are all variations on the same theme: troubled celebrities who have been brought low by various life circumstances and are clawing their way back–with plenty of psychobabble to help them along the way.
There’s nothing wrong with any of the shows; the celebrity comeback is a staple of the Winfrey diet. But OWN isn’t representing a whole other aspect of Winfrey’s brand appeal: the aspirational role model.
Think of the special “Extraordinary Moms” that aired earlier this month, with Julia Roberts as host discussing parenting issues with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Christiane Amanpour. Instead of poring over people’s problems, “Moms” highlighted what’s good and right about some notable individuals rather than what they’re doing wrong.
The problem is reality TV is more riveting when the focus is on dysfunction. But if OWN can’t figure out how to package the aspirational aspect of Winfrey’s brand, they’re not entirely capturing its essence.
If anything, turning around OWN may be just a matter of time. Isn’t it possible the network’s problem is simply that as long as Winfrey remained on broadcast TV, fans weren’t going to miss her and seek her out? Starting today, she’s going to find out.