Oprah’s Next, Next Chapter

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In a blinding glimpse of the obvious, the Oprah brand is rising from the ashes as the former queen of daytime returns to what she does best: one-on-one interviews.

Oprah’s Next Chapter interview with Rihanna Sunday night scored 2.5 million viewers, OWN’s second highest-rated telecast in its brief and tumultuous history. It was more than double the numbers posted from her Kardashian interview in June, which drew 1.1 million viewers. 

Thanks to female viewers, the episode, in which Oprah unabashedly (redundant) queried Rihanna on her stormy relationship with Chris Brown, ranked No. 2 in the 9 p.m. Sunday timeslot, pulling in a 2.43 rating for women 25-54 and a 2.49 rating for women 18-49 years-old. The only show on OWN with higher ratings was Oprah’s interview with Whitney Houston’s family following the superstar’s death. [more]

“The lesson here? If you’ve recently (in the last four years) suffered some sort of traumatic event and you feel like crying in front of millions of people, find a way to get interviewed by Oprah. Also, be famous and rich,” Fuse concluded

Since its launch on January 1, 2011, Discovery has poured more than $585 million into OWN, as well as contributing the Discovery Health Channel slot valued at $273 million. Despite the hoopla pre-launch, ratings were initially lackluster for the almost-eponymous network, averaging 308,000 daily primetime viewers in the first three months according to Nielsen.

Fast forward to Q1, 2012, and ratings rose 5.8 percent as Oprah’s Next Chapter debuted, a return to the tried and true formula of the talk doyenne interviewing guests tête-à-tête, stepping out of the studio for enlightening and in-depth conversations with newsmakers, celebrities, thought leaders and real-life families. 

Hmm…seems like the same show that in-studio, largely minus B-roll, made Oprah Hollywood’s highest-paid entertainer in 2012, earning $315 million. But the new cable channel overall draws less than one-tenth of her old syndicated TV show.

Facing media executives and advertisers in April, Oprah said, “I am in the climb of my life. I am climbing Kilimanjaro, and it’s all on Wilshire Boulevard at the OWN offices,” reports Businessweek in an extensive article titled “Discovery’s Oprah Problem.” The story details the travails of David Zaslav, chief executive officer of Discovery Communications, Winfrey’s partner and half-owner of OWN:

Winfrey’s gold-plated brand has been tarnished by the network’s slow start, but Zaslav’s bank accounts may have suffered even more. Discovery… put up the cash for Winfrey’s network, and so far it hasn’t been a winning investment. From its 2008 inception through Dec. 31, OWN may have lost as much as $330 million…Even if OWN makes money in 2013… it has saddled Discovery with such high costs that analysts say the company may eventually be forced to write off some of its current $420 million investment.

Back in January 2011, we reported the critics’ reactions:

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.” 

Procter & Gamble signed on early with a $100 million advertising deal with the new network. Brad Adgate, head of research at Horizon Media told Businessweek, “Advertisers still want to be a part of Oprah’s brand. It’s not a four-alarm fire yet as far as marketers go.”

The original programming plan, recycling a bulk of shows from Discovery Health, didn’t satisfy viewers who tuned in looking for Oprah’s branded elixir of enlightenment and empowerment, and OWN has scrambled to fill 160 hours of weekly airtime. The firing and hiring and revamping of programming line-ups are part of history now, and par for the course for the channel RBC Capital Markets’ David Bank told Businessweek is the most “successful failure in television today.” 

This Sunday features back-to-back episodes of Oprah’s Next Chapter featuring Olympic champion Gabrielle Douglas and Kelsey Grammer. 

The world has clearly seen that going from a successful one-hour daily show to a 24/7network is nearly impossible – even for the queen herself, who essentially invented the genre. Perhaps her best Next Chapter is yet to come – as Oprah returns to what she does best.

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