Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications Inc. four months ago sought to lower expectations for the launch of their high-profile joint venture — OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network — stressing it would take time for the new cable channel to find an audience.
But the fledgling channel’s tepid start failed to match even their most modest assumptions. On Friday, the channel’s chief executive, Christina Norman, was ousted, and Discovery’s No. 2 executive, Peter Liguori, took over the Los Angeles-based channel on an interim basis.
“It has turned out to be much tougher sledding than they originally thought it would be,” said David Scardino, a television analyst with the Santa Monica advertising agency RPA. “They have the Oprah brand, and that’s great, but they have been putting on the same kind of programming that you can find on a lot of other networks.”
OWN launched Jan. 1 amid great fanfare and immediately attracted a healthy audience of more than 1 million people. But the enthusiasm quickly evaporated.
Although the channel has debuted 14 shows, viewers have warmed to only a couple of programs, including “The Judds,” hardly enough to turn them into loyal fans.
The network is also difficult for some people to find in the vast universe of cable channels. According to ratings firm Nielsen Co., OWN has averaged fewer than 300,000 viewers in prime time, a miniscule number given Winfrey’s prominence.
OWN’s audience is only slightly larger than Discovery Health, which occupied the channel space before OWN and operated on a fraction of OWN’s programming budget. Discovery has spent $215 million to launch and program OWN, and Discovery executives last week conceded that they would be injecting more money into the venture to bolster its programming.
“They already have made a huge investment,” said Derek Baine, cable analyst with consulting firm SNL Kagan. “They have a real dilemma. How much more are they going to have to spend to find some programming that sticks?”
Part of the problem, analysts said, is that most of the attention surrounding Winfrey has focused on the run-up to the final episode, on May 25, of her syndicated “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Viewers still can get their Winfrey fix on broadcast television.
Winfrey, too, has acknowledged that she’s not spending much time on OWN, and that she also has been disappointed with the channel.
“With the final taping of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ only a few weeks away, I will soon be able to devote my full energies to OWN,” Winfrey said in a statement announcing the management change.
The channel has had success with such shows as the news documentary “Our America With Lisa Ling” and a reality-style look at the making of Winfrey’s program, “Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes.” But a bounty of self-help talk shows bombed.
Next week, the channel launches “Becoming Chaz,” the story of Sonny and Cher’s child’s transition from a woman to a man. It is also betting big on the October launch of Rosie O’Donnell’s new talk show, “Rosie,” and “Oprah’s Next Chapter” in 2012.
In an interview, Liguori, a former senior Fox executive who became chief operating officer of Discovery Communications in 2010, said that he would sit down with Winfrey after she wraps up her syndicated show to discuss “exactly what direction this network should take.”
OWN has had more than its share of struggles and management turmoil. Initially announced in January 2008, the channel’s launch was delayed several times as executives attempted to zero in on a programming strategy. Its first president, Robin Schwartz, lasted less than a year.
Norman, a former president of MTV who had experience running a cable channel, was brought in two years ago to ramp up the programming. Before the launch, she acknowledged in an interview that she and other programmers had difficulty getting a handle on how best to reflect the “Oprah DNA.”
Liguori, who is expected to oversee the channel for several months before a new CEO is named, said that takes time: “Every nascent venture on the planet has to go through growing pains.”
Ultimately, it will be up to Winfrey to give the network her voice.
“Oprah curates what programming is on the network; she is an active chairwoman,” Liguori said. “All of this goes through Oprah’s instinctive filter, and her gut. And she’s built an amazing empire by trusting her gut.”
Advertisers are hoping that Winfrey will be able to work her magic again.
“There is still a lot of potential there, but they must be realistic about the fragmentation of the television audience,” Scardino said.
“Just because she has about 6 million people watching her syndicated show doesn’t mean that they have an audience of 6 million for the channel. But long-term, if they have the patience — and the resources — they should end up doing OK.”