“A queen is not afraid to fail,” Oprah Winfrey once said. “Failure is another steppingstone to greatness.”
Now the television queen may have a chance to prove the adage. Her Los Angeles-based Oprah Winfrey Network has been hobbled by missteps, ego clashes, a revolving door in the executive suite and, most important, low ratings.
OWN’s stumbles suggest, at the least, that even in celebrity-obsessed America, fame alone doesn’t guarantee success.
The network was born 15 months ago with high hopes of becoming the television equivalent of Winfrey’s O magazine. It paired the star who transformed a daytime talk show into a multibillion-dollar empire with the cable powerhouse Discovery, the parent of Discovery, TLC and Animal Planet.
Both parties assumed that the 6 million fans who still watched Oprah’s talk show in syndication, which aired its finale in May 2011, would flock to her cable channel.
But sustaining an entire network proved difficult.
More than 1 million viewers arrived for the network’s debut on New Year’s Day 2011. But since that first weekend, OWN has averaged just 259,000 viewers in prime time, according to Nielsen. Reruns of the 1980s sitcom “The Golden Girls” on the Hallmark Channel draw almost twice as big an audience.
Earlier this month, OWN pulled the plug on one of its biggest and most expensive bets — an evening talk show starring Rosie O’Donnell. Last week, OWN fired 20% of its workforce after Winfrey and Discovery, which so far has invested $312 million in the channel, agreed to slash spending to keep the network afloat.
Interviews with numerous executives who have been associated with the network paint a portrait of a channel that was dysfunctional from Day 1. Consumed with ending her long-running daytime talk show in Chicago with a bang, Winfrey was disengaged during crucial planning stages. Across the country, her staff in L.A. struggled to figure out how to translate Winfrey’s personality or essence, what they called the “Oprah DNA,” into compelling programming.
The challenge: striking a balance between Winfrey’s desire for “life-affirming” programming and the flashy, trashy “Real Housewives” and “Jersey Shore"-type shows that deliver big ratings. Complicating matters was that Discovery concentrates on nonfiction programming, eliminating scripted comedies and dramas from the mix.
“The biggest mistake they made was they launched the channel too early,” said Derek Baine, cable analyst with SNL Kagan, who this month calculated that OWN would lose as much as $142.9 million this year. “They put a lot of money into marketing the channel, but it wasn’t fully baked. They were driving people to test a product that was broken.”
The disintegration of “The Rosie Show” is a good example of what went wrong. O’Donnell was wooed back to television by a $20-million, two-year deal, but her show quickly veered off the rails.
Although O’Donnell had hosted successful talk shows from New York City, OWN moved her show to Chicago so the network could utilize Winfrey’s set and production crew. But without Winfrey’s ratings and clout, the Chicago locale made it difficult to lure A-list guests, who were reluctant to leave the traditional Los Angeles-New York talk show circuit for the Windy City. O’Donnell, a Broadway aficionado, also spent loads of money flying in the casts of musicals from New York to appear on her show.
O’Donnell clashed with Winfrey’s production team, sometimes even berating them in front of the studio audience, according to people close to the show. Within three months, O’Donnell scrapped the set, the studio audience, the band and some of Winfrey’s people — much to the chagrin of the network.
None of it raised ratings. The show averaged 185,000 viewers and lasted just six months.
“I thought it would be easy for me, but it wasn’t,” O’Donnell told viewers last week. “We really started off the wrong way. We were trying to do a little of what we did 15 years ago … but you can’t go back.” A spokeswoman for O’Donnell declined further comment.
OWN has suffered most from the absence of programming featuring Oprah herself, and could have benefited from a return of her successful daily talk show. But Winfrey was determined to leave the daily grind and wanted to expand from the starring to producing role. Viewers did not follow.
“Her name was not enough,” said Eleanor Townsley, a sociology professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. “Her syndicated show reached a mass audience; it was universal. But cable is a very different place. It was only the true believer who followed her to cable.”
Despite the turmoil, Discovery executives say they are optimistic about OWN’s future. They note that viewership has risen recently, with more programs starring Winfrey on the network schedule.
“Oprah’s Next Chapter” has drawn respectable ratings. The high point, with 3.5 million viewers, was an episode in which she interviewed Whitney Houston’s 19-year-old daughter in the aftermath of the singer’s death.
“Oprah’s Lifeclass: The Tour” debuted Monday night. Broadcast live from various locations, the show is designed to showcase Winfrey’s inspirational chats with other luminaries.
“I’m much more encouraged now than I’ve ever been,” said David Zaslav, Discovery chief executive. “It takes a while to figure out who your audience is and how to nurture it. It’s not going to happen in a heartbeat.”
Winfrey now is pursuing “big gets,” which have long been her bread and butter. She interviewed a South Carolina mother, Shaquan Duley, who confessed to killing her two children, for an upcoming episode of “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” and has expressed interest in interviewing George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch volunteer who shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin last month.
Winfrey, who declined to comment for this article, assumed the title of chief executive in July, a move seen as an attempt to stabilize a channel that has lost more than a dozen senior executives.
OWN’s first chief executive, Christina Norman, a former president of MTV, left last spring — just four months after the channel launched. She had clashed with Lisa Erspamer, a Winfrey loyalist sent to Los Angeles from Chicago to help infuse the programming with Winfrey’s point of view. Erspamer eventually was sent packing too.
Discovery dispatched its chief operating officer, Peter Liguori, a former programming executive for News Corp.'s Fox and FX networks, to bolster OWN and its programming. Liguori’s assessment that the network needed more quality programming — and not just the aura of Oprah — was received poorly by those close to Winfrey, according to people familiar with the matter.
Winfrey shooed Liguori out the door and installed Erik Logan and Sheri Salata, the top executives from her Chicago-based production company, as the new presidents of OWN. Neither has experience running a cable network. Most current and former OWN executives signed nondisclosure agreements that prohibit speaking publicly about Winfrey or the network.
One of OWN’s problems is that it is difficult for viewers to find. The network even has a website to help viewers find the correct channel. Locally, the channel is 219 on Time Warner Cable.
OWN’s bottom line is expected to improve in 2013. Cable networks have two revenue streams — advertising dollars and subscriber fees. Starting next year, many cable and satellite distributors will beginning paying to carry OWN, at an initial cost of about 20 cents per subscriber per month. That is on par with Bravo and more than HGTV, Oxygen and WE, all channels that are chasing female viewers.
The network is also bringing back two promising programs, the news magazine “Our America With Lisa Ling” and “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s,” a show about a popular family-run St. Louis soul food restaurant. Last week, Winfrey stopped by to appear in the show.
“All of us — including Oprah — believe in this network,” Logan said. “We have good momentum in the ratings and new shows that we are excited about. We’ve right-sized our business financially, and now have sound business fundamentals beneath us.”