“Had I known that it was this difficult, I might have done something else.” – Oprah Winfrey, on her OWN venture
It appears Oprah Winfrey is learning the old adage that not all who can, should. The billionaire’s fledgling OWN network, it appears, is on the financial ropes, as the former talk-show queen took to the advertising circuit this week in the hopes of roping in more ad-dollars to keep the network afloat.
Before analysing what can be done to save the network, let’s take a look at OWN, by-the-numbers:
- January 1, 2011: OWN debuts, after Winfrey publicly announces May 25, 2011 as the final date of her popularly syndicated talk show. The channel is 3 years in the making, with a price-tag totaling more than $200M.
- The channel replaces Discovery Health in 85 million homes. During primetime on the inaugural day, “the network pulled in 399,000 viewers in the 18-49 demographic and 507,000 in the 25-54 demographic,” with ratings peaking (not surprisingly) during a behind-the-scenes look at the Oprah Winfrey show’s 25th and final season.
- Over the past year, however, “the network averaged 50,000 viewers among women ages 25 to 54,” totaling fewer female viewers (69,000) watching the male-skewed Spike TV at the same time.
- Despite original programming, including America’s Money Class (with Suze Orman) and The Rosie O’Donnell Show (since canceled after struggling for more than a year), “The network’s most-watched recent programs were Winfrey’s interviews with Whitney Houston’s family, Lady Gaga, rocker Steven Tyler and mega-church pastor Joel Osteen.”
- $312M into the venture by the beginning of 2012, the Discovery Channel starts putting the proverbial screws onto Winfrey, demanding changes in scheduling
- Most tellingly, during the past week in NYC spent courting advisors to the fledgling network, Winfrey confesses she “started the channel too early.”
Whether she calls it a restructuring or a turnaround, it’s clear that Winfrey must now significantly alter the programming and approach of OWN to create a profitable network her fans/public want, versus the one she wishes she could produce.
Here are a few tweaks Winfrey must consider to right this sinking television ship:
- Oprah Must Be Oprah Once Again: When Winfrey retired from TOWS last year, she had clearly grown both tired and bored of the product, format, and ruminations of her daily talk show. OWN, to Winfrey, signaled a “new beginning” and vision for her: a channel through which she could maximise the “Oprah effect” with minimum editorial effort. Unfortunately for Winfrey, her fans clearly want her – not her endorsement or name or initials. The numbers bear this out: the highest-rated shows on the OWN network involve Winfrey in her familiar interviewer’s pose and position. Consequently, in order to reverse profitability trends at OWN, Winfrey must become more active on-air, going so far as to recreate TOWS, the program through which her fans best relate to her.
- Cease Existing As An Aspirational Brand and Start Standing for SOMETHING: As impressive and admirable as Oprah’s messaging through the OWN network can be, OWN cannot simply exist as a channel through which Oprah broadcasts programs and topics of interest to her. Winfrey’s fans have proven they are interested in aspirational programming only when Oprah herself is involved its delivery and presentation; minus Winfrey, these fans quickly click away from OWN to other networks that are (to quote Seinfeld) “about something” (i.e The Cooking Channel).
- Differentiation. Differentiation. Differentiation.: As outlined above, OWN must begin generating revenue through a combined approach of both increasing eyeballs-on-screen and an economic appeal to advisors. Consequently (and obviously), Oprah must, like a dedicated chef with a prize dish, focus on OWN and create it precisely in HER image, through her (in most cases, literal) voice and vision. An OWN network that’s extensively and exclusively Oprah generates more cash than a dimming shadow-channel of “once-was.”
Is OWN dead? No, not by a long shot. In order for the channel to survive, however, Winfrey must take the same steely-eyed gaze and approach to her network that she once did her career and talk show and remember there are dollar signs hiding behind the Oprah name, voice, and presence. Whether she wants to step in front of the camera or not.
Margaret Bogenrief is a partner with ACM Partners, a boutique crisis management and distressed investing firm serving companies and municipalities in financial distress. She can be reached at [email protected]
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