Oprah’s OWN problems start with ho-hum programming

For the talk diva who reigned in regal fashion on television for more than a quarter century, it was a stunning admission of near total failure.

In a lay-bare-your-problems interview with the Associated Press several days ago, the once-Chicago-based Oprah Winfrey conceded her year-old Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) is in serious trouble.  Perhaps, as Winfrey suggested in that interview with Lynn Elber, the problems could ultimately prove too big for her to fix.

At the core of the troubling situation, of course, is what drives the success — or lack thereof — in every television venture, namely ratings. Though Winfrey herself is embedded in the very name of her new cable channel, OWN has simply failed to attract the kind of viewership that would indicate the fare there is appealing to TV watchers.

Oprah shifts OWN’S programming problems to others

But for someone who is a top executive at OWN, Winfrey was quick to blame others for OWN’s problems in her chat with Elber. Not a sign of great management technique.

Winfrey now professes to be shocked that those running the channel on her behalf did not realize sooner that a successful cable channel requires fresh, compelling programming — and lots of it — for the enterprise to succeed.  If her minions were indeed so clueless, couldn’t Winfrey have provided a few helpful pointers, given her vast experience in the medium?

Or perhaps Winfrey really did believe, in her own ego-driven way, that viewers would show up and stay tuned to OWN simply because her name was on it.

In any event, now that Winfrey has discovered what the problem is at OWN, blaming others certainly won’t solve it.

The question for Winfrey and those calling the shots along with her is whether they can find and fund enough quality programming fast enough to entice viewers to give OWN a second chance.  Few media are as unforgiving, however, as television. And once TV watchers have turned away, getting them back again can be exceedingly tough.

“The Rosie Show” a ratings disappointment

Besides, Winfrey’s track record so far suggests she and her underlings at OWN don’t exactly have a talented programmer’s natural touch.  Take, for example, “The Rosie Show.”  Please, someone take it, because viewers certainly aren’t — at least in the numbers that would peg the show as anything close to a hit. 

But at the start Winfrey obviously believed in Rosie O’Donnell enough to give her a new, high profile time slot on OWN.  Of course, it all also had something to do with the fact Winfrey and O’Donnell are good friends — which is nice, but never a good-enough reason to greenlight a TV show.

The end product is often painful to watch. O’Donnell, a New Yawker through and through, was forced to move to Chicago to tape her show and help give the vacated Harpo Studios a flimsy reason to continue to exist.  Consequently, the uprooted O’Donnell looks uncomfortable and — what’s often worse — insincere on camera as she tries to feign some great, enduring love for a city she barely knows. 

One of O’Donnell’s most grating habits is the constant need to reference Broadway as the mecca for all theatergoers.  It’s Broadway this and Broadway that every time O’Donnell is given a chance to speak of her love of theater on the show.  Has she or one of her producers not realized yet that Chicago is something of a theater capital as well? 

But the “The Rosie Show” is just one example of the poor thinking that has plagued OWN programming. Many in the OWN hierarchy no doubt figured “Oprah’s Lifeclass” also would be a surefire winner because it featured the network’s glorious namesake.

Yet, it was excruciating to watch as Winfrey lectured viewers on all she had learned in her decades as the queen of talk on TV.  Really, we sat through scores of college courses that were infinitely less annoying and pedantic than what Winfrey delivered. 

Still, the powers-that-be at OWN apparently believe more of Winfrey served up in more different ways may be what the network needs to dig its way out of a very deep hole.

Oprah appears to be considering an OWN exit strategy

But, as we said before, TV often doesn’t allow for much time to correct mistakes — certainly not when they are of the magnitude of those that have afflicted OWN. What was most chilling — and perhaps prophetic — about Winfrey’s recent interview with the Associated Press is that, if nothing else, Winfrey grasps that grim truth for sure.  

Surprisingly, she looks to have already thought long and hard about her exit strategy from OWN and even come up with a game plan should the worst-case scenario come true.

Yep, Winfrey said that if OWN ends, she wants to go into organic farming in Hawaii.  Somewhere in that candid admission a comedian’s punch line is waiting to happen. But Winfrey told AP’s Elber “I’m not kidding.” 

And who are we to doubt her?

Contact Lewis Lazare at LewisL3@aol.com