It seemed the unthinkable happened: Oprah Winfrey made a bad business decision. For decades, Winfrey was renown for her incredible business acumen that netted her billions of dollars. But ever since the end of her successful talk show, it looks like she’s been struggling to compose a second act.
When announcing her vanity cable network – the Oprah Winfrey Network (or OWN) – Winfrey knowingly took a huge risk in front of her millions of adoring fans. But now with her increasingly shrinking ratings, many have questioned whether or not Winfrey may have misjudged her pull outside of network television.
This wasn’t the first time that Winfrey ventured into Ted Turner territory: In 1998, with other studio execs, she started Oxygen, a channel that could be charitably described as a Lifetime rip-off. Winfrey’s involvement in the channel ceased and she carried on with her own empire as Oxygen became reasonably successful with a slate of reality programming.
With OWN, however, Winfrey took an even bigger risk than with Oxygen because her stamp of approval appears on all its programming. She’s hosting a few shows and she’s gotten high-profile pals like Sarah, the Duchess of York and Rosie O’Donnell to star in programs, yet OWN is still struggling to find an audience. Executive shakeups occurred in the first two years before Winfrey took the reins, and expanded her role, which may help the troubled channel.
But things don’t look great right now. A few days ago Winfrey (normally a genius at media relations) stepped in a lot of doo doo when she took to Twitter to ask Nielsen viewers to switch over to OWN from the Grammy telecast. This faux pas reveals that Winfrey, like all established entities, may struggle with the developments in technology and mass media communication. Again, it was previously believed unthinkable that Winfrey be tone-deaf about, well, anything, but she may have cocooned herself too much.
The biggest part of Winfrey’s appeal was her ability to reach out to her audiences and make them feel like she was “just one of the girls.” She had an intuitive ear for what was interesting to the general public and she was able to exploit that interest for television ratings. Over the years, she built an impressive fan base as well as an intimidating power, and through television she was able to dictate, at least in part, popular culture – she got people to buy books, she convinced people to give to charity, she may have even helped a certain Illinois senator win a presidential election.
But that was then and this is now. And the now is pretty grim for Winfrey. Part of the reason why her flock may not have followed her over is that when she was just Oprah from The Oprah Winfrey Show, she was on 5 days a week for free. Now, people wanting to watch her shows will have to pay a cable company and ensure that they get the right provider who carries OWN (not all do). Another explanation could be Winfrey fatigue – although this may be stretching things a bit far, it could be argued that Winfrey’s peaked and she no longer has the pull she once did: her magazine’s still a success as is her Website, and the shows on OWN that she’s actually starring in do (relatively) well. Or if we’re giving Winfrey the benefit of the doubt, we could say, “starting a cable channel is hard and there’ll be bumps on the way.” And of course, starting a cable channel is hard – and not every upstart channel gets the attention that OWN does.
It’s still very early, and OWN could do a three-sixty and become a big success. Given Winfrey’s track record, it would be a mistake to count her out completely. In time, we’ll see if Winfrey’s mighty talent will be enough to save her cable channel.