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5 Ways to Fix Oprah Winfrey's OWN Network

Issue 8 Oprah Sinking Ship Composite - H 2012
iStock Photo; Scott Olson/Getty Images

Now that Winfrey and Discovery have tried everything -- staff shake-ups, pregnancy shock shows, even begging via Twitter -- it's time to follow a critic's prescription.

This story first appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Who would have thought it would come to this: Oprah Winfrey begging for viewers? The former queen of daytime syndication recently sent a tweet to her nearly 9 million followers, begging the ones with Nielsen boxes to watch her channel. The original tweet (since deleted) read thusly: "Every 1 who can please turn to OWN especially if u have a Neilsen [sic] box."

She deleted the message, apologized via The New York Times and will have ratings for that night listed with an asterisk that indicates coercion or bias has occurred. But what does the tweet say about Winfrey and OWN after 13 long months trying to launch a new channel?

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That this is less a numbers story than the implosion of a cult of personality -- perhaps the biggest and most surprising ego check in recent entertainment history. Maybe that's why, not long after pleading for her Twitter followers to watch OWN -- and they didn't -- Winfrey popped up in entertainment news saying she might get back into acting. That's a great idea, as long as the movie isn't shown on OWN.

The problem here isn't just that Discovery and Winfrey seriously miscalculated how difficult it is to launch a new channel. And it's not just that it needs better shows than I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant, America's Money Class With Suze Orman or Unfaithful: Stories of Betrayal. It's that even in the brutal cable TV world of narrowcasting -- all sports, all food, all weather, etc. -- the market for a channel that's all Oprah just doesn't exist.

Oprah's Next Chapter is OWN's biggest hit (with about 900,000 viewers), but it pales in comparison to her glory years on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where she dominated the airwaves for a quarter-century. At its peak, Oprah pulled in roughly 13 million viewers a day, and even toward the end she was still attracting nearly 8 million.

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OWN is supposedly available in 78 million U.S. households, which makes that 900,000 figure for Next Chapter even more depressing. Despite the power of Discovery and the ubiquity of Winfrey, not one OWN series is in the top 40 of cable's rankings, where the lowest-ranked show, a repeat of NCIS on USA, pulls in 3 million viewers. OWN doesn't come anywhere close to the weekly averages of the top 35 cable channels -- meaning it's getting trounced by TruTV, Travel Channel, Spike and many others.

In an earnings conference call Feb. 16, Discovery Communications president and CEO David Zaslav said, "We are excited to grow this network in 2012." Well, good luck with that. Despite upper-management deck-chair shuffling and the creation of Rosie O'Donnell's fun talk show, almost nothing has worked to give OWN an identity.

Here are a few proposals for the network:

Develop a string of reality/unscripted shows that are more than some kind of Oprah-esque feel-good mantra stretched out for an hour, culminating in hugs.

Part of the problem at OWN is that all the shows feel similar, like a self-help chat. OWN needs to hire someone who can either help shape that direction or buy up ideas from the outside. It needs someone who can take Oprah's message and apply it to a concept that's entertaining, not just a lecture on being your best self. MTV got Jersey Shore. Bravo got The Real Housewives. Discovery got Deadliest Catch. History got Ice Road Truckers. The list goes on. And what it means is that niche channels broadened their horizons with reality fare.

Instead of this master class nonsense of talking to celebrities, Oprah should get some of those big names to make series for her.

Tap someone who hasn't yet sold material to Fox or Bravo, and sell OWN as a rare opportunity: a lab for unscripted series to find purchase.

Branch out the Oprah's Book Club idea.

Make this a cultural gem, a PBS-like effort (with the requisite Oprah bonding element, of course). Make it a weekly series.

Right now, OWN feels like a bunch of random programs wrapped around talk shows.

It needs a five-days-a-week series, something that gives Winfrey's audience a reason to tune in every night. But it can't be yet another yawn-inducing talk show. What OWN needs is what ESPN with SportsCenter and Comedy Central with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report already have: a must-watch daily information show. There's no reason it can't be done Oprah-style on OWN. You're welcome. Send me a check

Barring those, start a music competition series.

Everybody else has.

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OPRAH'S OSCAR SPECIAL SUFFERS, TOO

Hollywood's annual kudos-fest offers a telling barometer of Oprah Winfrey's declining reach. Winfrey, an Oscar nominee for 1985's The Color Purple, this year moved her primetime special from ABC to OWN. Airing Feb. 15, Oprah's Oscar Special drew just 282,000 viewers. Her last Oscar special on ABC in 2010 pulled in 4.3 million, more than 15 times as many as the one on OWN, and was third in the time slot behind CSI: NY (12.4 million) and Law & Order: SVU (9 million). In fact, the post-Oscar Monday episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which she hosted from the Kodak Theatre, were a perennial audience favorite. Her final Oprah's Ultimate After-Oscar Party in 2011, featuring best actor winner Colin Firth, powered her show to 6.4 million viewers for the week. In a bid to retain exposure to millions of Nielsen families, Winfrey will appear on a post-Oscar talk show, but it won't be her own. She's headlining Jimmy Kimmel Live: After the Academy Awards. – Marisa Guthrie