The young network's co-presidents talk with TheWrap about what got Winfrey's network out of the red and ready to expand
OWN certainly didn't take a straight path to this point. Its high-profile benefactor was subject to unusually intense scrutiny along the way. But with positive cash flow, its first Emmy nomination for an original series and several solid programming blocks, OWN is looking stronger than ever.
"Boy, does it feel good," president Sheri Salata told TheWrap.
Also read: Oprah Calls OWN 'the Climb of My Life'
OWN seemed like a good idea when it debuted Jan. 1, 2011. Winfrey had the No. 1 daytime talk show in a tough national market. In more than two decades of daytime supremacy, she had became a tastemaker, a political booster and a self-help guru to her show's average six million viewers. Why wouldn't that make for a successful network?
But the early days of OWN were plagued by low ratings, a lack of original content, very few opportunities for appointment television and Winfrey's inability to dedicate herself fully to the enterprise because she was devoted to ending her show with a bang.
OWN was plagued by executive turnover, and Discovery pumped in $139 million more than the $100 million it initially committed. It went through two CEOs before Winfrey assumed the post in July of 2011. Along with Salata, her talk show's former executive producer, and Harpo's Erik Logan, as the network's presidents, Winfrey went to work to turn OWN around.
It was a struggle: the failure of Rosie O'Donnell's talk show in March 2012 and more than 30 layoffs were big blows. Winfrey likened the job to climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. But in April 2012 she said she could see the summit.
"All our attention and focus really started two years ago when Oprah became CEO and then a year ago when we had to make some 'right-sizing' moves," Logan told TheWrap. "Those sort of moves take some time to start paying off."
Why is OWN up? Here are five reasons:
1. The people want their Oprah.
Winfrey is the network. And once she was free from her daytime duties, she began fronting several series, including "Oprah's Next Chapter" and "Oprah's Lifeclass." It would seem like a given that viewers would come to OWN expecting to see her. But initially, Winfrey was more curator than host.
"It's her network. She wants to be on," Salata said.
"I don’t think this is any surprise to anybody," Logan added. "Oprah has known once she became the CEO of the network and concluded with 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' in May 2011 that this is what would be required to make it work. So, she knew eyes wide open walking into that."
He also said Winfrey will "continue to have a strong presence."
Thankfully for OWN, Winfrey's ability to land interviews with newsmakers continued beyond her talk show. Key interviews on "Next Chapter" have included Lance Armstrong talking about his doping scandal, Whitney Houston's family after the singer's death, Rihanna breaking her silence on Chris Brown, and Lindsay Lohan addressing her recent attempts to turn her career around. (The interview was coupled with news of a reality series deal.)
2. Spiritual programming clicks.
There were some, including TheWrap's Tim Molloy, who wondered if OWN would kill itself with kindness by eschewing the trumped-up drama of many reality shows. But Winfrey was devoted to spiritual, uplifting programming.
"Even when we're entertaining, we're trying to make it meaningful, trying to have it have some layers," Salata said.
The network saw early ratings success with "Oprah's Lifeclass" and "Oprah's Master Class," which earned the network its first primetime Emmy nomination for an original series.
"['Oprah's Master Class'] is right at the sweet spot of Oprah's multimedia mission," Salata said. "In her eyes, it's the best and most profound use of celebrity. We were dancing a jig to be nominated for a primetime Emmy for an original series so young for our life in OWN's existence, and that viewers have responded to that show as they have."
3. Black viewers are not to be underestimated.
Winfrey has embraced African-American women, and they have embraced her back.
Logan points to the reality series "Welcome to Sweetie Pie's" as an example. The series, which revolves around a black-owned family business, premiered just 10 months after the network's launch. Its success would become instructional for the network.
"We saw that the African-American audience was adapting to this show at a faster rate than the general market," Logan said. "And as networks do, you cultivate that audience. The real breakthrough for us was without question Iyanla Vanzant. I think when 'Iyanla, Fix My Life' came on the air and we continued to see how we could grow and nurture that audience, it became something we wanted to remain focused on and continue to do."
4. Tyler Perry, but of course.
The network moved into scripted programming by signing Perry to create shows. The partnership made sense.
"From a creative point of view, it's perfect for us," Salata said. "Now, it feels we have a really interesting mix that can appeal to our broadest lane. It's certainly fun for us to be in the scripted world. We have things that you can't find on another network."
OWN's deal with the most prolific writer-producer in black cinema led to the network's most-watched original series premiere, the drama "The Haves and the Have Nots," as well as the comedy "Love Thy Neighbor." OWN also saved Perry's TBS series, "For Better or For Worse," from cancelation and will begin airing new episodes in the fall.
"Our relationship with Tyler and him coming to OWN with original series was really going to put some gas on the fire," Salata said.
5. Location, location, location.
One of the toughest things for any network, let alone a young one, is creating appointment television. OWN has created several strong programming blocks.
They include Perry's scripted nights, a night of African-American-skewing unscripted shows, "Super Soul Sunday" and Winfrey's suite of Sunday series. The blocks help brand the network.
"When we're talking internally, when we're all sitting around, we always clarify our intention," Salata said. "We're enlightening, informing and entertaining. I think what's really thrilling for us is we have some muscle on the entertaining part of the brand. The middle lane of the brand we know backwards and forwards."