Oprah strikes out on her OWN

FOR BOTH Oprah Winfrey and her millions of fans, it’s the end of an era: Wednesday saw the final ever episode of Oprah’s astonishingly successful daytime talk show.

Yes, after 25 years of emotional conversations, declarations of celebrity love (who can forget Tom Cruise leaping around on Oprah’s sofa?), book club controversies and discussions about how much weight Oprah herself has lost or gained, the woman who worked her way up from an impoverished childhood in the American deep south to become the first black female billionaire has shut down the show that made her name.

But 57-year-old Oprah was always adamant that she had no plans to retire after the last episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show aired in the US this week, (it’ll air soon on TV3). Two years ago, around the time she revealed that the 25th season of the Oprah show would be the last, she announced that she had plans for an even bigger television project — her very own TV network, OWN, which would be launched several months before her own show ended. “I want to take what I’ve established in daytime, inspiring people and giving them hope — and some cars — and build on that, 24/7, OWN style,” she told potential advertisers in Autumn 2010.

The station promised an array of life-enhancing, positive programming that would encourage each viewer to “be your best self”, with a range of documentaries and lifestyle programmes, and reality shows featuring everyone from Sarah Ferguson to Shania Twain. At a conference in 2010, Oprah promised that the network’s shows would be “fun and entertaining without tearing people down and calling them bitches”. Imagine that. As the January 2011 launch date approached, Oprah pushed the new station at every opportunity, both on her daily show and in her monthly magazine, O. With all this fuss, and Oprah’s track record, how could it fail?

Well, quite easily, as it turns out. “[OWN is] not where I want it to be,” Oprah admitted in a recent interview with US magazine Entertainment Weekly. During the first week, OWN attracted 505,000 viewers, who were offered seven brand new shows including Ask Oprah’s All-Stars, a four-part panel discussion featuring Dr Mehmet Oz, Dr Phil McGraw and Suze Orman, all of whom are regulars on Oprah’s daily show. But within a month, average viewing figures had plunged to just 135,000, fewer viewers than Discovery Health, the obscure cable channel that OWN had replaced.

Network bosses were forced to overhaul the schedule, moving the station’s biggest ratings winner, Behind the Scenes, to a more high-profile Sunday night slot and bringing forward new shows that were originally meant to air later in the year. Since then, Oprah and her team have been taking increasingly drastic measures to make the station work; on May 6 it was announced that the head of the network, Christina Norman, was leaving her position immediately (she’ll be temporarily replaced by Peter Liguori of Discovery Communications, co-owners of the network).

It’s a humiliating setback for Winfrey, but it’s easy to see why she assumed the new venture would be a huge success. For over two decades, almost everything she’s touched has turned to gold. Her show is hugely popular all over the world, including Ireland. “We don’t confine her to daytime,” says TV3’s director of programming Ben Frow, an Oprah fan who recently got to attend a taping of the Oprah show, where he was impressed by Winfrey’s professionalism and warm charisma. Not only does TV3 air the talk show every afternoon, but the station has aired several of Oprah’s more exciting episodes — including those devoted to the cast of Glee, and her encounter with the Amish community — in prime time, where they have performed very well.

But Oprah’s influence extends beyond the daily chat. Her book club, launched in 1996, made bestsellers of everything from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to a reissue of John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel East of Eden. In May 2000 she launched the hugely successful O, The Oprah Magazine. Although newsstands sales have faltered since the recession began to bite in 2008, the sophisticated and intelligent magazine, whose contributors include award-winning novelists such as Amy Bloom as well as Oprah regulars like Doctor Phil, still has a circulation of over 2 million and boasts over 10 million readers.

The success of the magazine has proved Oprah’s ability to win over a new section of the population — there’s relatively little crossover between the magazine’s readers and viewers of her television programme. Although Oprah herself graces the cover of every single issue, Jill Seelig, O Magazine’s publisher and chief revenue officer says that only 19% of the show’s audience are O magazine readers. Most of the magazine’s readers are richer, older and better educated than viewers of the show, with median incomes of over $68,0000 (€48,000) — far above the national American average.

So with such successful risk-taking under her belt, to say nothing of the heavy-hitting marketing campaign, why has Oprah been unable to win over new viewers to OWN? Has she lost her golden touch? Or have American audiences finally had enough of the person described by CNN as “the world’s most powerful woman”, a woman whose endorsement of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race is believed to have garnered over a million votes for the now-President?

Some have suggested that the network’s vow to avoid any nastiness has backfired. TV3’s Ben Frow thinks this may be the case. “A whole network of positivity is a big ask,” he says. “Some of the ways you feel better about yourself is by looking at other people’s misery. It’s very admirable to want to have a network about bringing out the best in people, but could it all get a bit too nice and positive? We did research and people want to watch feelgood programming, but they still watch murder and crime [programmes] because it puts everything in perspective.”

Or maybe the network, in addition to the talkshow and the magazine, simply means that, finally, there’s just too much Oprah out there. Have we reached saturation point? Perhaps not. In fact, the network’s failure may be a result not of too much Oprah, but too little. In the Entertainment Weekly interview which appeared earlier this month, Oprah said that she hasn’t given as much of her time to the station as she would like. “I feel like I have not begun to give anything to OWN,” she said. “I was on the phone yesterday with the head of OWN probably for 20 minutes, and then I was on another phone call for an hour, so I probably gave OWN and hour and 20 minutes yesterday. Not enough. Not enough… Doing this right and ending [The Oprah Winfrey Show] it this way is a full-time job.”

In the same interview, she admitted that launching the station while she was still working on the talkshow may have been a mistake. “I’ve thought maybe it would have been better to wait until this completely ended and then literally use [Oprah] as a launch pad,” she confessed. “If I had it to do differently and had thought of that option, I might have considered that a priority. But I don’t spend a lot of time in the regret mode.”

Oprah also told Entertainment Weekly that while O Magazine basically runs itself now, OWN requires much more of her attention. “I wouldn’t even say 10% of my time is on OWN right now. But it will be. [After the end of Oprah] I can start to give my attention to OWN that it deserves. It’s going to improve exponentially with the amount of time and service I can give to it.”

So will OWN’s fortunes improve with a bit more Oprah? The answer is probably yes. The network’s biggest hit, the aforementioned Behind the Scenes, is the only one in which Oprah herself appears — it’s a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the making of her talk show. And in the future, she plans to front her own weekly prime time show, Oprah’s Next Chapter. Ben Frow, who has seen and loved Behind the Scenes and is considering airing it on TV3, thinks that more on-screen Oprah is necessary. “The network will only survive if she’s a very big part of it. I’m not into Suze Orman or Dr Phil — it’s just Oprah I want!”

And as the network continues to produce more brand new series, there’ll be more variety; at the moment OWN is forced to pad out the schedule with constant repeats of a limited amount of shows. One diehard fan blogged that one of the network’s biggest problems was that there were “TOO many reruns. Dedicated viewers have already seen them. With nothing ‘new’ left to view, it can be frustrating and I’m turning the channel… We are excited about the shows… we are present…. we are loyal… we want to be there… but nobody stays at a party if nothing is happening…” That should change in the near future, and there are plans to sell OWN shows worldwide — which means we should eventually get to see them here.

So maybe Oprah hasn’t lost her touch after all. When Entertainment Weekly asked her how she felt about OWN’s performance so far, she said she just needed a bit more time to get things the way she wants them. “I had a wonderful conversation with [legendary TV producer] Lorne Michaels at a dinner party. He said it’s going to take three years, not two. And I am going to have to pay my dues and will be in the midst of a learning curve. And when I think I’ve learned as much as I need to know, I’ll be hit with something else. Don’t judge OWN until after three years.”

This is the sort of honesty that, says Ben Frow, made Oprah so beloved in the first place. “She’s not a fake, and that’s what makes her work so well,” he says. “Viewers can really tell if someone’s true to themselves or just trying to be a presenter. And Oprah’s got truth going through her like a stick of rock.” So when Oprah says she’s made mistakes and she knows she’ll make them again before she ultimately triumphs, we believe her. “People love honesty and vulnerability — they don’t love people who get it right all the time,” says Frow. “People will say, ‘yeah, she knows there’s a problem, and she’ll sort it’.” And you know, she probably will. She is Oprah, after all.

Stability and fame after tough start

BORN to a single mother in Mississippi in 1954, Oprah Winfrey had a deeply unsettled and impoverished childhood.

As a child, she was abused by several family members and ran away from home when she was 13. When she was just 14, she gave birth to a son who died shortly after birth.

As a teenager, she won a scholarship to Tennessee State University, where she studied communications. After graduating she became a news reader and reporter at a Nashville TV station, going on to work at local news stations in Baltimore and Chicago.

She had branched into acting, with an Oscar-nominated performance in Steven Spielberg’s film version of Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple, by the time she launched her groundbreaking national talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, in September 1986.

The programme was an instant hit, and by the 1990s, it had moved away from its tabloid roots and was focusing on everything from big celebrity interviews and literature to spirituality. Although criticised for encouraging a confessional culture of self-obsession, she was also praised for her willingness to discuss taboo subjects.

In 2000 she began O: The Oprah Magazine, and in January 2011 she launched a new TV network, OWN. She has been a vocal supporter of charitable causes, and in 2008 she topped a list of the world’s most generous celebrity philanthropists.

In 2007 opened the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Her family dramas continued when, in 2010, she found out that she had a half-sister, Patricia, who had been given up for adoption (Patricia joined Oprah on a special episode of her show in January).

After the traumatic abuse of her youth and several turbulent romances in her twenties, Oprah found stability with her partner Stedman Graham; the couple have been together since 1986. This month, a street in Chicago was named Oprah Winfrey Way in her honour.

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