Come Home Oprah. All Is Forgiven

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.

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.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be reached at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read his other columns here.

Comments (19)

Leave a Reply

Brian Bussey says:

November 4, 2011 at 3:39 pm

This is actually a very good idea. I still like BOUNCE

    Christina Perez says:

    November 4, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    If USA Network, ESPN and CNN followed Harry’s advice, there would be NO REASON for the vast majority of subscribers to buy cable, given that internet streaming services can supply movies on demand. Since my Comcast cable bill just rose by $32 a month, I believe that’s an excellent strategy for these programmers to follow — because we are very close to quitting pay TV or good, content with OTA broadcast TV and a streaming service for movies.

Matthew Craft & David K. Randall says:

November 4, 2011 at 3:48 pm

As Harry knows, I think that OWN can remain on basic cable AND create a multicast partnership with local stations. Especially if the top tier local broadcast partners contribute local and regional programs to the mix, as a number of station groups are already doing for similar co-ventures. Through such win-win partnering, Oprah can not only go home again to broadcast stations, she can make it a triumphant return.

    Marilyn Hyder says:

    November 4, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    Excellent point and to add to this train of thought, the promotional muscle of the 200 affiliates behind Oprah’s critical news lead-in show on broadcasters was enormous for Winfrey’s success. Despite Discovery’s multiple cable networks, it pales in comparison to the broadcasters cumulative impact. Cable is all about sub-fees, and without them, most cable nets would go out of business on solely on their ad revenues and paltry ratings.

    It must be hard to swallow for Winfrey to see that just one year ago on broadcast stations she was getting a 6 HH-ratings, and this year on cable she can’t even reach a .6 HH-rating. Rosie, once a syndication powerhouse, is even worse than Winfrey.

    Unless a course correction occurs, Discovery’s Zaslav will not only have lost his “sure” bet along with hundreds of millions of shareholder dollars, but Winfrey will have damaged her winning brand, lost her national platform and unwittingly accelerated the decline of quality television by her absence.

mike tomasino says:

November 4, 2011 at 4:36 pm

Of course this type of plan is dependent on broadcasters keeping enough spectrum to continue to have multicast channels. I couldn’t care less about Oprah. I know that other people would love to watch 24/7. I like THIS, Antenna TV, and MeTV (if I had it). I absolutely love “The Cool TV.” I’d even watch Bounce (despite the fact that I’m a white boy). (Gannet take note about KTVD 20.2) Yes, I want more free DTV.

    len Kubas says:

    November 4, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    how do you love a network you can’t watch?

    mike tomasino says:

    November 7, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Simple, I can look at their schedule from the internet, know what shows are on, know that I would enjoy watching those shows, and therefore know that I’d love the network if I could watch it. 😉 After all a network is programming. It’s like people saying that USA is a higher value property than NBC because USA beat NBC in the ratings. If you look closer, USA beat NBC running reruns of NCIS. It isn’t that a cable network is of higher value, it’s that CBS beats NBC hands down even in reruns. 🙂

Ellen Samrock says:

November 4, 2011 at 5:22 pm

A key point here is ‘acting fast.’ More and more networks are starting up, such as Soul of the South, that are looking for broadcaster sub-channels. Something else OWN should consider are Class A and LPTV stations. At last count, there are 2560 of us and I know we would all welcome Oprah with open arms.

    mike tomasino says:

    November 4, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    Plus Luken Communications has plans for 10 multicast channels. All looking for space in DTV. And, there are only 49 RF channels now, and 5 of those are questionable. DTV is limited only by spectrum. Can DTV keep enough to meet its potential?

Linda Leavell says:

November 4, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Great Ideal, How about Oprah makes a owned sub-Channel?

Gregg Palermo says:

November 4, 2011 at 8:14 pm

Who watches a subchannel? The 9% who still use an antenna? Watching broadcasters pretend to be relevant is sad, really sad. Maybe mobile DTV is their salvation, maybe. But subchannels are a joke.

    len Kubas says:

    November 4, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    you continue to understate the audience; 9% of tvhh don’t have cable (and growing, by the way) but that doesn’t mean that only 9% of tv sets aren’t connected to cable; the figure is closer to 15%.

    mike tomasino says:

    November 7, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    Watching Rustbelt pretend to be relevant is sad, really sad!!!

Matthew Craft & David K. Randall says:

November 4, 2011 at 9:39 pm

I believe Oprah’s smartest move would be to return to daytime on regular broadcast stations — and to make part of the price of her return having the local stations agree to carry OWN on a subchannel. This would automatically achieve much lower channel numbers for OWN, making it much easier to find. Plus, a new daytime Oprah a terrific promotion vehicle for the network. I presume the deal would be sweetened for local stations with a certain amount of OWN ad inventory. Local stations might even program certain dayparts on their local iteration of OWN and the best of those efforts would create content for OWN nationally.

Shaye Laska says:

November 5, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Broadcast TV has made many stars…and then moving to cable has taken away their glitter.
Cable is the back porch of television. Conan anyone?

jeff lee says:

November 5, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Who’s Conan?

Clayton Mowry says:

November 7, 2011 at 2:34 pm

The broadcast platform is still the most efficient media vehicle out there. And as Harry says shows make the station, but stations make the shows as well. The broadcast nets can learn something from this. While breakout creative hits like “Breaking Bad”, “Mad Men” and “Sons of Anarchy” are cable ghetto superstars, they are still niche programs that have the advantage of skirting the FCC scrutiny we get in broadcast TV while breaking new ground. Cable is still the “witness protection program” for much programming. In daytime the “niche” approach won’t cut it, there are too many hours to fill at too much of “more of the same”. Oprah doesn’t need anymore money, she needs to be loved by the public, but if she is beyond that at this point, she should turn her focus to the Bill Gates world of post-big-success rich people. If she wants to influence people she needs to be back on local TV. Imagine her first time endorsement of Obama stranded between shopping channels today, like a pebble in the ocean.

    Christina Perez says:

    November 8, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Well said. And this is why broadcasters must defend any attempt to seize spectrum via forced auctions or other schemes. Network content looks noticeably better when viewed OTA as opposed to via cable TV compression. Do viewers who fork over big bucks for top-line HDTV sets realize this? No, they don’t — because broadcasters do not promote that fact. Many people still don’t realize that high definition reception does not require cable. Again — if broadcasters ever gained access to CNN, ESPN, USA, AMC and put them on the air as digichannels, there would be no reason for a sizable percentage of cable customers to continue to fork over $60+ every month for cable service.

Clayton Mowry says:

November 8, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Great points.

More News