by René Syler
I know this is a little outside my usual fare but I had to write about this when I saw this item skirt across my desk. OWN, the joint venture between Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications, is slated to lose somewhere in the neighborhood of 143 million dollars this year (a report disputed by Discovery). But even if that figure were incorrect, it would be a stretch to call OWN, a success.
It would seem that OWN had that in its DNA; after all, Oprah and her eponymous TV show had an unparalleled run in syndication. She had the Midas touch, turning authors into best-selling superstars and made her regulars, stars in their own right, spinning off Dr. Phil, Rachel Ray, Dr. Oz and Nate Berkus (all successful except Berkus, whose show was recently canceled).
(Me and Oprah shortly after my preventive mastectomy)
I’m not a high-paid TV executive, just a wife, mother with more than 20 years of television under my belt. But as a viewer, I have a few guesses as to what went wrong. The question now is what to do to make it right? I am under no illusions that anyone there will listen to me; I’m just a woman who writes from her walk-in closet. But if they did, this is what I would say is key to making things better.
GET RELEVANT TOPICS: I admire Oprah for wanting to bring to cable some of the high-minded programing that she did for several seasons on her syndicated show but we have to remember, cable is where cupcakes are king! It’s where the Real Housewives party with The Jersey Shore for crying out loud! I think Oprah, envisioned aspiration 24 and 7. Cable is not the place for that, at least in large doses.
GET RELEVANT CONTENT: I’m sure the Judd’s are a very nice family, but honestly are people ready to give up a chunk of their time to watch them? I mean outside of hardcore Judd fans? And the O’Neals? While dysfunction reigns in cable, the subjects need to be relevant to the audience today. Does anyone younger than me know or, more importantly, care about Tatum and her father Ryan? It’s all about Snooki and Bravo’s table-turning housewives. OWN also needed content that was bigger, splashier and cast a wider net. One of my friends who’s a TV critic said Oprah needed to tap on the shoulder some of those people she made stars and get them do shows for the new network. I’m not sure they even could or if their lucrative syndication deals would allow it, but I’d venture to say more people would watch a show hosted by Dr. Phil than Naomi Judd.
STAY ON BRAND! Last summer, I took a quick trip to California. Executives at OWN had asked some producers I had worked with previously, to bring me in. It was my third meeting there and my third time meeting with a different management regime (another part of the problem). As we grabbed a bite prior to heading into the offices, we were talking about Rosie’s new show, which had been announced and was in production. In between bites of my croissant, I said, “It will never work.” I knew it instinctively, not because I’m so smart, but I have learned a thing or two over the last several years about brands and branding. Rosie on OWN would be like me having a show on Food Network. I don’t cook; it’s not in my heart and positioning myself as one would have been uncomfortable, for both the talent and the viewer. Rosie’s brand was so very different from Oprah’s, which is way, at least in part, it was canceled after one season.
UNDERSTAND THE AUDIENCE IS DIFFERENT NOW: There has been a monumental shift in the way we consume information over the last several years and it has underscored that content is truly king. When Oprah had her syndicated show, there were hardcore viewers who would tune in no matter who was on Oprah’s couch; they were tuning in to see her. That has changed and with stunning speed. Content has to be relevant to the lives of the people watching otherwise they’ll go somewhere else to find it. And in this age of DVR’s and video on demand, people can essentially program their own networks; tailor their shows to their own viewing likes.
EMBRACE SOCIAL MEDIA: Oprah’s on Twitter but I think she could and should do more. A talk show host who IS using social media smartly is Ricki Lake, whose show debuts later this year. The other day I stumbled upon a U-Stream chat where they were talking about what they were planning for the show. That’s right; in my home in New York I was watching the inner workings of a talk show being developed. Every so often Ricki or someone at the table would take a question from the U-Stream chat room or give a shout-out to someone. They are building brand loyalty that way. And guess what else? They are keeping their thumb on the pulse of what’s happening in the country by hearing from real people in real places about their real lives, as opposed to the rarefied air of New York and Los Angeles producer planning meetings. It’s ingenious and will result in story ideas that are real and relevant to people’s lives.
There are other issues, some beyond their control (having a hard to find place on the dial) and some of their own making (multiple management changes). But one thing seems clear, the next change OWN makes, really needs to be the right one.
Okay your turn. Have you ever seen OWN? Where do you think Oprah went wrong? What would you suggest she do to fix it?
René is the author of Good Enough Mother: The Perfectly Imperfect Book of Parenting and founder of its subsequent website, www.goodenoughmother.com.