Oprah Winfrey ended 2010 as Hollywood's highest-paid entertainer (earning $315 million last year, according to Forbes), and started 2011 by venturing on her OWN — the name of her much-ballyhooed, Discovery-backed 24/7 cable network. Critics were mostly positive, while response by viewers was predictable (fans were in awe, others couldn't be bothered).
Pundits are closely watching to see if viewers will indeed "follow me to OWN" as she urges a fan in OWN's behind-the-scenes series about her 25th season — and whether her personal brand will carry over as she prepares to step down from the syndicated daytime talk show that made her name and fame.
Salon.com reviewer Matt Zoller Seitz found himself "won over" by the aspirational network launch after a marathon viewing session on its first day, while the New York Times' TV writer Alessandra Stanley observed, "OWN isn’t for everyone, and it certainly isn’t for viewers who like Oscar Wilde or can’t read of the death of Little Nell without laughing. But it lives up to the Oprah Winfrey ethos — a 'meaningful, mindful' cable network that seeks its own truth and tries to be its own best self."
NPR, meanwhile, heard from a cultural anthropologist who bemoaned the lack of diversity among its on-air talent: the so-called "All-Stars" (Dr. Phil, Suze Orman, Mehmet Oz) among the Oprah-incubated self-help gurus who populate Winfrey's daytime series, Sirius channel and magazine — and who will fill the channel when its namesake isn't on the air, as she's only contractually bound to appear only 70 hours per year.
The biggest bet may be for Discovery Communications, which has invested $200 million in the 50-50 joint venture with Winfrey and scrapped its Discovery Health network to make space for OWN. Winfrey, meanwhile, now finds herself competing with Oxygen, the NBCU-owned women's network that she helped finance, along with Lifetime, Bravo and a host of other channels favored by her (primarily) female audience.
Discovery CEO David Zaslav is optimistic the Oprah brand will sustain its latest channel launch, which is demanding a premium from cable, satellite and telco TV systems to carry it — not to mention advertisers such as P&G. "Cable is a niche business," he told Forbes. "If you can own a niche, that can be a very strong business."
OWN released preliminary Nielsen ratings figures today for the network, which is available in 67% of US homes and 80% of homes with cable, satellite or telco TV subscriptions.
On January 1st, it was the #3 ad-supported cable network with women 25-54 at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., behind only ESPN and USA Network. That's when the network ran the premiere episodes of Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes. Overall, OWN averaged 1 million viewers on its first night — besting Discovery Health's average viewership about 390%.