Despite the brand name of perhaps the most famous and beloved woman in the history of television, Oprah Winfrey’s OWN cable network is not doing well. It suggests that Oprah didn't fully appreciate the promotional power and quality programming environment she had during her long run in broadcasting. So here's a suggestion for her: Turn OWN into a multicast channel and seek carriage on broadcast subchannels. Suddenly, instead of working against you, you will have TV stations working for you again.
Come Home Oprah. All Is Forgiven
Broadcasters should be grateful to Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications for launching the Oprah Winfrey Network.
It would be impossible to create a more vivid example of the unique power of local broadcasting to roll out and sustain original programming.
Despite the brand name of perhaps the most famous and beloved woman in the history of television, OWN is not doing well. Even the heavily-hyped debut of Rosie O’Donnell last month has resulted in ratings that would guarantee cancellation in syndication.
OWN will soon have no choice but to abandon Oprah’s inspirational vision and to attract viewers by following the well-worn path of most basic cable channels. It will become an amalgam of sensational reality shows, movies and off-network reruns. If you want to see OWN in 2013, look at Oxygen today.
Oprah was co-founder of Oxygen, but apparently learned little from the experience.
True, some of the blame for OWN’s poor performance goes to its revolving-door executive suite and the harsh reality that viewers can’t find it among hundreds of cable channels. On New York’s suburban FiOS system, OWN runs on ch. 161, following a bunch of home shopping channels and sandwiched between Style! and Veria. It’s not what you would call an upscale cable neighborhood.
On broadcasting, Oprah’s enormous talent and appeal made her so popular that you can hardly blame her for believing she could do anything, especially with the help of such smart and successful executives as Discovery CEO David Zaslev and Fox Networks veteran Peter Liguori. Surely that team can overcome the many challenges of basic cable.
Well, they can’t.
Because even the combined wealth of Discovery Communications and Harpo Productions can’t remotely begin to match the sheer promotional power of over 200 TV stations.
Much is made of the boost that the syndicated Oprah gave the newscasts that followed her. But the reverse is also true. In the aggregate, those same stations that paid dearly to carry the Oprah Winfrey Show, also carried Oprah herself. She benefitted from the collective creativity, reach, frequency and marketing expertise of each of her local partners.
Therein lies a lesson and a solution for Oprah and OWN.
Oprah, come home to broadcasting.
Here’s a suggestion for you from one of our contributing editors, Arthur Greenwald. Rather than continuing to wallow in the depths of cable, turn OWN into a multicast channel and seek carriage on broadcast subchannels. If you act now, you would have a decent chance of clearing the network in every market.
Suddenly, instead of working against you, you will have Big Four O&Os and affiliates working for you. They will have a great incentive to send viewers your way because your network will now be their network. All their promotional firepower — and maybe even their sales force — becomes yours.
One especially good partner is LiveWell, ABC’s budding multicast channel. It, too, is targeting women and has developed some nice programs. What it lacks is a strong central brand. Is there a better one in TV for women than Oprah?
Will broadcasters take you back? Hell yes they will. For all their grousing about how expensive your show became, it was a great partnership. They got rich. You got spectacularly rich.
Historically, the problem with broadcasting for launching new networks has been the lack of shelf space and the inability to reap programming fees. Neither is a problem anymore. With the advent of digital, stations can run multiple networks and over the past several years they have discovered that they can charge cable and satellite operators substantial programming fees by exercising their retransmission consent prerogative. Fox just decided to put Bounce TV on the subchannels of its MNT stations. Those slots could have been yours.
For all the media proliferation and audience fragmentation, TV stations remain the best place to showcase new shows, to start building programming franchises in primetime or in syndication that will pay handsome dividends to those lucky enough to hold equity in them for years and years.
They might also now be the best place to launch a network.
As the real estate brokers like to say: location, location, location.