OWN Presidents Logan and Salata are in it for long haul
Given all the drama and hype surrounding OWN, it is sometimes hard to remember that the cable network launched by Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications has been on the air for just over 10 months.
"We are not even two minutes into the first quarter here," said Erik Logan, one of OWN's two new presidents, over coffee at the network's Los Angeles headquarters earlier this week. "It really is a smart thing to keep your head down," added Sheri Salata, OWN's other president.
Keeping its head down was not OWN's strategy when it launched Jan. 1. Of course, given whose name is on the channel, the idea of a low-key debut was probably a pipe dream anyway.
The story of OWN's first year has been fairly predictable so far. The channel got strong sampling from curious viewers lured by heavy hype when it premiered. A few weeks later, few had stuck around. There was turmoil behind the scenes as several of the shows tanked and Christina Norman was bounced as chief executive of the channel in early May.
Winfrey, who said she had been too focused on ending her daytime talk show to worry about how OWN was doing in its early months, assumed the role of chief executive in July and tapped Logan and Salata, who had been running Winfrey's Harpo Studios, to oversee the day-to-day operations of OWN.
Logan and Salata, who have worked together for just over three years, accept that, like it or not, OWN is being scrutinized far more than just any new cable channel.
"We knew that Oprah Winfrey starting a network would be watched closely; whether it's fair is for others to decide," Logan said. He and Winfrey have met with key advertisers including Procter & Gamble to assuage any concerns about the channel's performance.
One of the myriad challenges for OWN is Winfrey's desire to put on positive and inspiring programming in a cable world where it is often the trashiest that succeeds. Salata managed to pull that off when she was executive producing Winfrey’s daily show, but she acknowledged that being “on brand and proud and still wildly entertaining” 24/7 is a little trickier.
Furthermore, while trying to be empowering is a noble goal, viewers don't necessarily want to be preached to by their televisions.
"We can’t put a lectern up and turn on a camera,” said Salata.
Of those four, it is Ling's show and "Welcome to Sweetie Pie's" that are gaining momentum. Both saw their audiences grow by almost 50% from Week 1 to Week 2."Our America With Lisa Ling" got 520,000 viewers in its second outing, compared with 347,000 in its premiere. "Welcome to Sweetie Pie's," about former Ike and Tina Turner backup singer Robbie Montgomery's family restaurants, drew 423,000 viewers in Week 2, compared with 284,000 in Week 1.
"Our America With Lisa Ling" and "Welcome to Sweetie Pie's" are pleasant surprises, but new episodes air only once a week. Building up "The Rosie Show" and "Oprah's Lifeclass," which run daily, are priority one because, as Logan put it, "this network has never had a reason to turn it on every day."
"Our North Star is 'Life Class,'" declared Logan. "Everything will emanate from that."
Both "Lifeclass" and "The Rosie Show" are doing so-so. "The "Rosie Show" premiered with almost 500,000 viewers but is now averaging about half that audience. "Oprah's Lifeclass" wooed 333,000 viewers on Day 1 and is now averaging about 300,000.
Those numbers crush the ratings that Discovery Health, the channel that used to occupy the space OWN calls home, had. However, given the hundreds of millions that have been pumped into OWN by Discovery Communications, how it is faring compared with Discovery Health should not be the measuring stick.
Logan and Salata know the bar is higher for them.
"We’re not used to seeing a zero to the left of the decimal point," he said of OWN's mostly lackluster ratings. That said, the pair also has an "if we build it they will come" attitude and wants to avoid looking for quick fixes. "If we’re making a decision that is reactive, we’re probably heading down the wrong road," said Salata.
Despite all the attention from critics, investors and competitors, for Logan there is only one person he and Salata need to worry about.
"The pressure we feel is to deliver something to her," said Logan. "If at the end of the year Oprah says, `We’re exactly where we should be,’ then we’re on the right track."
— Joe Flint
Photos: Top: Erik Logan and Sheri Salata. Credit: OWN. Right: Rosie O'Donnell and Oprah Winfrey hope to recapture past glories on new cable channel. Credit: Mark Lennihan /Associated Press.