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Winfrey and Discovery need to learn a little patience with OWN

May 6, 2011 |  1:20 pm

Winfrey1

Just 10 days before the Jan. 1 launch of OWN, the cable network co-owned by Discovery Communications and Oprah Winfrey, Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav told the Los Angeles Times he knew the network would not be a hit from Day One.

"We recognize it's going to take awhile to find a voice," Zaslav said, stressing the need for patience with the cable network.

Apparently "take awhile" meant five months.

NORMAN2 On Friday, Discovery and Winfrey announced that Christina Norman was out as chief executive of OWN. The former president of MTV, Norman was brought in by Winfrey and Zaslav to OWN in 2009 to figure out just what the Winfrey voice was. She replaced Robin Schwartz, the first head of OWN, who was shown the door when she too apparently couldn't find Winfrey's voice.

To be sure, the ratings for OWN are pretty dismal. The network's first day drew lots of curious people, but they soon went back to their old viewing habits. The only show to really click at all with viewers is a behind-the-scenes look at Winfrey's last season as a daytime talk show host. Overall, the network is averaging about 300,000 viewers in prime time and 150,000 in total day.

That was to be expected. A channel is not going to be a huge success out of the gate no matter whose name is on it. Winfrey of all people should know this given how long it took Oxygen, another cable network she was involved in, to find its footing.

The challenge for Winfrey and Discovery is they want to provide inspiration to a cable television audience that thrives on desperation. For example, this Saturday OWN is launching "Extraordinary Moms," which the channel's website said, "explores the power of mothers, featuring courageous, brilliant and awe-inspiring women who share a powerful connection: the love they have for their children combined with a fierce desire to protect the future of all children."

It sounds nice, but there is probably a lot more action in an episode of "Jersey Shore." Also premiering soon is "Becoming Chaz," a documentary about Chaz Bono, the offspring of Sonny and Cher who had a sex change operation and is now a man. Again, uplifting and politically correct, but unlikely to bring in millions of viewers.

LIGUORI To get the numbers Discovery and Winfrey want, they are going to have to get dirty. It worked for Bravo. A channel that was once about high art and culture now gets rich off of pathetic housewives. History Network long abandoned history in favor of ice road truckers, whatever they are.

If that is not what Winfrey and Discovery want, then OWN should stick to the high road of feel-good programming with a liberal bent and recognize it will take more than a few months to build a loyal following.

The rub though is that Discovery and Winfrey want the channel to be a huge financial success. Discovery has pumped north of $200 million into OWN and it is charging many distributors north of 20 cents per subscriber, per month to carry the network. Those distributors are not going to be happy paying that much for a channel struggling to outperform C-SPAN.

Christina Norman is taking the fall for OWN's early stumbles. If she was not the right person for the job, Discovery and Winfrey had almost two years before the channel's launch to come to that realization.If they believed in her lineup, then they should have stuck with her and figured out how the channel can bring in more viewers who are tired of the reality sleaze that fills most cable networks. There must be a few million folks out there somewhere who would like that.

Now in the OWN hot seat is Peter Liguori, Discovery's chief operating officer. He will serve as interim chief executive during the search for a permanent replacement. Liguori has a strong track record of success. He played a key role in overhauling News Corp.'s FX, which now has a reputation for cutting-edge programs. From there he went to Fox Broadcasting, where he also delivered until he was squeezed out in a power shift at the company.

A charmer, Liguori knows how to schmooze talent. He managed to keep Paula Abdul happy and functioning on "American Idol" for years, which is no small task. He'll need those skills to balance the needs of Winfrey with those of his bosses at Discovery.

It won't be pretty.

-- Joe Flint

Related Post: Norman out as president at OWN

Photos: Top: Oprah Winfrey. Credit: Kiichiro Sato/AP. Right: Christina Norman. Credit: Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times. Left: Peter Liguori. Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images.

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