Patience will be key for Discovery and Oprah Winfrey's OWN
Given all the media attention around the Jan. 1 launch of OWN -- the cable network owned by daytime talk queen Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications -- there are probably over-the-top expectations that the channel will explode right out of the box.
Odds are that won't be the case. For starters, while OWN is launching in almost 80 million homes, it is taking a slot currently held by the little-watched Discovery Health channel and may be hard for some consumers to find on the channel guide. Secondly, this isn't a show being born, it's an entire channel. The promotional push, understandably, has been focused primarily on the OWN brand, which is uplifting and empowering programming rather than individual shows.
Winfrey's talk show has an average audience of about 7 million viewers this season, according to Nielsen. Her biggest following for the last six years has been women over the age of 55. Nothing wrong with that, but advertisers tend to favor younger viewers. OWN has long-term commitments from big advertisers such as Procter & Gamble and is seeking very high rates for its commercials, but if the channel’s core audience is over the age of 50, that could make getting premium prices difficult.
OWN will be competing not only against the cable networks whose mandate is to specifically target women – Lifetime, Oxygen and WE – but numerous other channels whose programming generally appeals more to the fairer sex including Home & Garden TV (HGTV), TLC, Bravo, Food Network and E! Entertainment Television. Kids and teen channels Nickelodeon, Disney and ABC Family also have strong ratings with women as they pull in a big chunk of the mom audience.
The pie is sliced pretty thin among all these channels. Through the first 11 months of 2010, Lifetime’s prime-time female audience was 883,000 people, according to Nielsen. HGTV had 878,000 while TLC had 768,000. The only cable networks to crack a million female viewers were broad-based entertainment channels including USA, Disney, Nickelodeon and TNT. USA was on top of that list with an average female audience of almost 1.75 million.
If OWN gets 5% to 10% of Winfrey's daytime audience to sample the channel, she'll be way ahead of the game. Odds are that the network will have small ratings to start and will endure lots of scheduling changes while it finds its groove.
It will be easy to look at Winfrey's first month and decide the network's fate, but channels are not built overnight. She has too strong a track record to be taken lightly, no matter how competitive the marketplace or how big a head start her rivals have.
In other words, it'll take a few years, not a few months before the media pundits should decide if OWN is working.
-- Joe Flint
Photo: Oprah Winfrey in Australia. Credit: Jeremy Piper/Associated Press.