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Oprah's got her OWN problems

Even Oprah Winfrey has confidence issues. The queen of media has tackled plenty of challenges in her life, but she second-guessed herself when she held the power of programming for her Oprah Winfrey Network, a joint venture between the talk-show host and Discovery Communications. While most network programmers have brand guidelines to help in the decision-making process, Winfrey enjoys a relativel
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Even Oprah Winfrey has confidence issues.

The queen of media has tackled plenty of challenges in her life, but she second-guessed herself when she held the power of programming for her Oprah Winfrey Network, a joint venture between the talk-show host and Discovery Communications.

While most network programmers have brand guidelines to help in the decision-making process, Winfrey enjoys a relatively free rein when it comes to OWN.

Still, in the time leading up to the Jan. 1 launch, she began fretting about her programming choices.

“Just a few weeks ago, I started thinking maybe I’m wrong. Maybe people really do want to watch housewives bicker,” Winfrey said. “I could absolutely be wrong about what I think people want to watch, and this could be the biggest lesson ever for me.”

Reason to worry?

And if the early ratings are any indication, she may have been right to worry a bit.

In its first month, OWN averaged 358,000 prime-time viewers in the target demographic of women 25 to 54, which was up 33 percent from last year’s numbers for Discovery Health, the network it replaced.

But according to ratings trackers tvbythenumbers.com, prime-time viewers in the network’s key demographic slipped to a mere 54,000 the week of Jan. 31-Feb. 6. By comparison, competitors Lifetime pulled in 394,000 viewers, Hallmark 182,000 and Oxygen 133,000 during the same week.

For her part, Winfrey doesn’t seem too concerned about the ratings.

“The number of people who found us surpassed my expectations and it proved that people were tired of the snark and the back-biting and wanted something different,” Winfrey said.

Looking at the lineup

OWN has yet to cancel any shows, and small production tweaks have been ongoing, which spokespeople for the network say is to be expected.

Overwhelmingly, the most popular original show on the network thus far has been “Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes,” which chronicles the current — and final season — of her popular talk show.

For many critics, it is the one genuinely compelling piece of programming on the channel.

“You get some real insight into how Winfrey thinks, how she deals with her staff. And no matter how they wrap it, they are clearly nervous about what she’ll think of anything and everything, and it feels more smart than smarmy,” said Philadelphia Daily News TV critic Ellen Gray. “The problem, of course, is that show goes away when the talk show does. Yet it is the one show people who love Oprah are most interested in.”

Other original programs on the network include declutter series “Enough Already! With Peter Walsh,” cooking shows “Anna and Kristina’s Grocery Bag” and “Cristina Ferrare’s Big Bowl of Love,” and the soon premiering “Searching For …” (Feb. 14), “Breaking Down the Bars” (Feb. 15) and “Our America With Lisa Ling” (Feb. 15).

During her Television Critics Association press tour panel in January, Winfrey remarked it was extraordinary to have her name on a channel and a place for her vision of what should be on television.

“A new kind of television where people would respond to the idea of something meaningful and positive in their lives,” Winfrey said. “Not just feeding them sweetness, but feeding them something that could be nurturing for their spirit, for their soul, for their mind.”

And like getting folks to eat their leafy greens, Winfrey doesn’t mind forcing the issue.

“There are a few shows (on OWN) that even if (viewers) don’t respond, I’m keeping them on anyway because I can, because I like them,” Winfrey said. “And in time, (the shows) will grow on (the viewers).”

One of those shows not doing so well? “Big Bowl of Love,” which lands at the bottom of OWN’s ratings barrel. But at OWN, it may have a longer time to build an audience than at any other network.

'Building the channel'

Only someone like Winfrey can boldly state she can disregard ratings, at least at the moment.

“I’ve been in TV all my life and I know most television programmers do not start the meeting by ‘How is this going to serve the viewer?’ ” Winfrey said. “Numbers are important, but they’re not as important to me right now as they might be to you. What I’m concerned about is building the channel with programming that is meaningful to our viewers.”

To that end, Winfrey is not that far off from most programmers. The difference is Winfrey’s brand is just starting. Other programmers come in with an established brand they have to program around.

“Networks have brands and you want to make sure that the show you’re doing is going to fit the network that it’s on, because if it’s not in fertile territory, it can be the best show in the world but maybe it should have been on FX or AMC,” said Paul Lee, head of ABC Entertainment. “So you want to make sure that it fulfills the brief of the overall network. But within that brief, there’s room for experimentation.”

While established networks continue to work within their parameters, Winfrey keeps looking at all the possible programs she would like to see on her OWN network.

“There’s so many places to fill and so many shows I want to have on,” Winfrey said. “I want to have a program that speaks to young people. I want a program that speaks to young parents. I want to have a program for young single women. And I want a program about pets. There are so many programs I want on my network, but it all takes time.”

Susan C. Young is a writer in Northern California.