How Oprah Turned OWN Around
On the first day of January in 2011, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) debuted in 80 million homes. Fifteen months later the network was in complete ruins. OWN's ratings had become a national joke, the network's highest profile star, Rosie O'Donnell, had been fired, and rumors swirled that OWN's backers (Discovery Communications, who had poured $250 million into the venture) -- were prepared to pull the plug.
Then Oprah got serious.
Love her or hate her, no one can argue Oprah Winfrey isn't brilliant, capable, and driven. In just a little over a year, the former daytime talk titan would take charge of her collapsing network and perform one of the most remarkable turnarounds in television history.
When OWN first debuted it took over an obscure channel most cable customers didn't even know they had: Discovery Health. After completing its first year, OWN was actually drawing fewer viewers than its predecessor -- 8% fewer, or 136,000 daytime viewers. Things were nearly as bad in primetime where OWN averaged only 247,000 viewers, 3,000 fewer than Discovery Health.
It was at this point that the media started to write underdog stories about the billionaire media mogul as she announced she would take over as the network's sole creative director and give the network her full attention.
Part of the problem had been that through the first half of 2011, Oprah was still hosting her successful and iconic daytime talk show. With her energies and attentions divided, OWN was really the Oprah Winfrey-less network. While its namesake was drawing on average 6.7 million daytime viewers in November of 2009 (when she announced her retirement), the misguided and entitled thinking had been that enough of those same viewers would automatically turn off Oprah's daytime show and turn on Oprah's network, and make it a success.
That plan nearly sunk the ship.
While there was speculation that Oprah's public and game-changing 2007 endorsement of Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton might have damaged Oprah's brand with women, that is arguable. While Winfrey did lose somewhere between 7% and 9% of her audience in 2009, some ratings analysts attributed that fall to an overall dip in television viewership. (For example, television stalwarts Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune experienced similar decreases.)
Regardless of the reason for the 2009 ratings drop, by the middle of 2011, as the final broadcast of her daytime show drew near, all was apparently forgiven. Oprah's ratings were huge, and the finale would draw a whopping 16.4 million viewers. None of this success, though, was translating to OWN.
Other than not having enough Oprah, most television observers agree that OWN's main problem was programming.
Hired to be a primetime building block, the politically divisive Rosie O'Donnell proved a disaster. Other reality and documentary shows revolved around Ryan and Tatum O'Neal, Shania Twain, The Judds, and Sarah Ferguson. There was also huge blocks of Dr. Phil and true crime documentaries.
By the time Rosie was dropped at the end of March of 2012, the highest rated show was Oprah's Next Chapter. The then-three month old talk show featured Oprah and interviews with "newsmakers, celebrities, thought leaders and real-life families." Her chats with the likes of pastor Joel Osteen, Chris Christie, and George Lucas didn't break any records, but the network's profile was raised and Oprah herself was anchoring her own primetime and the hemorrhaging had stopped.
By October of 2012, OWN's ratings were on the upswing:
The network closed its third consecutive quarter of year-over-year, double-digit ratings gains across primetime and total day in the key women 25-54 demo (+63% and +70% respectively) and saw triple-digit ratings growth in September
This is the same month Oprah would deliver her masterstroke -- a deal with Tyler Perry, one of the most prolific, popular, and successful moguls in almost every field of entertainment, including television. Winfrey inked an exclusive deal with Perry that would give OWN the rights to all of his television projects.
Six months later, OWN was a ratings success, bringing in more black women in the 25-54 demo than any other network (including BET), but also pulling in high numbers of women in general. Not only were Tyler Perry's two scripted shows doing well, but so were other primetime scripted, interview, and reality shows: Oprah's Next Chapter, Iyanla: Fix My Life, Raising Whitley, Life with LaToya, Super Soul Sunday, and Dark Girls.
Basically, Oprah decided to out-BET BET for black primetime viewers, and it paid off. Although BET has been a household brand for thirty years, OWN has shattered that monopoly:
Last week, OWN was the No. 2 network among African-American women ages 25 to 54 years in primetime, — behind only TNT, which was airing the NBA playoffs, according to Nielsen data. BET came in third place.
As the New York Post points out, it wasn't Oprah's original intention to aim her network at black audiences, but OWN….
…has found its footing among that audience with “Welcome to Sweetie Pies,” a reality show set in a soul food restaurant, and “Iyanla Fix My Life,” a self-help documentary series.
OWN is backed by Oprah’s Harpo and Discovery Communications, which promises OWN will hit profitability by the end of this year.
Meanwhile, OWN is giving BET a run for its money.
Over the past 12 months, BET has lost primetime viewers while OWN has gained, according to an analysis by Horizon Media research chief Brad Adgate.
BET averaged 714,000 viewers in primetime, down from 816,000 in the period spanning June 2011 to May 2012. Over the same time, Oprah’s average audience rose from 250,000 to 315,000.
While black audiences (especially women) might make up OWN's core, the network is also doing well with women in general. Just a couple of months ago, out of the hundred or so ad-supported cable channels, OWN ranked 12th in all women ages 25-54. And it is only a few days a week of Oprah's primetime hours that resemble BET. Dr. Phil, soap operas like All My Children, Dateline reruns, and true crime documentaries still dominate OWN's overall schedule.
A high-profile deal with Lindsay Lohan is Winfrey's latest high-stakes gamble -- but one she can afford to take. OWN is now a profitable enterprise.
Many new cable networks struggle in their first months and years. OWN's near-death experience only received so much attention because of its attachment to Oprah and the fact that it was considered a slam-dunk.
At this point, objectively, one would have to admit that Oprah's remarkable OWN turnaround overshadows the network's early failure.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC