Oprah to the rescue?

By now you’re doubtless aware of the behind the scenes – and on air – problems surrounding the Oprah Winfrey Network – or OWN as its most widely known.

Launched in January, OWN has so far failed to set the ratings world alight, with numerous stories comparing the network’s performance to its predecessor, Discovery Health. The headline – OWN is a costly failure and possibly on the verge of cancelation down the line. In fact The Hollywood Reporter recently ran a well-researched story along just those lines.

One of the major complaints about OWN has been that there’s simply not enough Oprah on the network. In part this was due to the fact that the Oprah Winfrey Show was still on the air for the first five months of the network’s launch, a key strategic mistake in my opinion. OWN should have launched THIS January, giving Winfrey time away from her show, time to devote to the network and, most crucially of all, time for audiences to miss her.

But now Oprah is returning to our screens – in a new series called Oprah’s Next Chapter that launches January 1st. The series, as you may have heard, follows Oprah as she travels the world, meeting famous faces, unusual subcultures and people making a difference in the world. Check out the trailer here

The network is once again heralding the new show as a potential re-launch for the network, but you do have to wonder just how many times a network can be re-launched (I think this is the third time now!) There was all the hoopla surrounding the network’s Spring reality shows – The Judds, Finding Sarah and the truly atrocious Why Not With Shania Twain. And then this Fall, The Rosie Show and Oprah’s Lifeclass were both touted as game changers for the network. But so far little has stuck when it comes to OWN.

To be fair it does take a long time to launch a successful network and OWN set itself a formidable challenge by unveiling an almost all new program roster from the start. But it’s also common knowledge within the TV industry that the net has made a LOT of mistakes – including a huge number of mis-hires.

For me the key problem for OWN is that it still feels like a ‘broccoli’ network! What’s a broccoli network you ask? It’s a phrase I used to describe networks whose main output is undoubtedly good for you, but is also kind of flavorless and a little boring. Sundance used to be a broccoli network. National Geographic still is. Planet Green always will be. And unfortunately OWN has yet to find the magical mix of entertainment and smarts that it clearly aspires to.

 

At the moment OWN feels like TLC – but 5 or 10 years ago. Too many of the shows are derivative of other formats or deeply repetitive. And there’s an over-reliance on old Oprah experts like Peter Walsh, Laura Berman and Suze Orman – instead of new faces for the net. If OWN is to succeed it has to emerge from Oprah’s shadow with its own stars.

One of the things that was most illuminating about the Hollywood Reporter piece is that Oprah watches little TV – and therefore her programming decisions may not be original enough for the current market. I have a feeling there may be a lot of truth to that idea. I’ve long said that if you don’t LOVE TV and have an incredible knowledge of what’s airing, when and where, and why it works, you shouldn’t be on the development side of the industry.

At the end of the day I really want OWN to succeed – but I think it’s going to take a lot more than an Oprah travel show to turn the corner. The network needs more spectacle, risk taking and drama. It needs reality stars and hosts who aren’t past their peak and actually resonate with viewers under 40. And most of all it needs to feel relevant in today’s TV market. Essentially it needs to be all the things that The Oprah Winfrey Show was for 25 years. But whether lightning will strike twice remains to be seen…

But what do you think? Are you still watching OWN? What do you like – or dislike – about the network? Comment away…