Is Oprah Winfrey's OWN Killing Itself With Kindness?

Is Oprah Winfrey's OWN Killing Itself With Kindness?

Competing with bridezillas, bad girls and real housewives, OWN vows to “bring light” — even at the expense of short-term success

OWN is ignoring one of the basic rules of television: Conflict sells.

And it plans to keep ignoring it.

OWN has had plenty of drama off-camera, to be sure, as it has burned through money and executives while earning fewer viewers than Discovery Health, the network it replaced at the start of the year.

Also read: OWN Gets Oprah the CEO – But Needs Oprah the Star

But as other female-skewing networks, from WEtv to Oxygen to Bravo, have cluttered their schedules with shows like "Bridezillas," "The Bad Girls Club" and "Real Housewives," OWN has carefully cultivated a zone of tranquility and self-improvement – even at the expense of other networks' quick-and-dirty ratings.

The network launched its first fall schedule Monday with two shows that failed to jolt it out of its ratings torpor: Rosie O'Donnell's "The Rosie Show" and Winfrey's own "Oprah's Lifeclass." Three more — "Don't Tell the Bride," "Welcome to Sweetie Pie's" and "Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind" — will debut Saturday.

Also read: Troubled OWN Axes CEO Norman, Brings in Liguori

The network insists that it is on a long journey toward building a network around Winfrey's approach to programming – which is, as network co-president Erik Logan puts it, "bringing light into people's lives."

Logan, who shares the presidency with fellow former Harpo executive Sheri Salata, sounds almost Oprah-like as he describes OWN's day-by-day journey to self-improvement.

"The name of the game here is strength over time, and turning networks around clearly doesn’t happen overnight," he told TheWrap. "The goal is each and every day to improve in your time periods."

Time, he says, is on the network's side. The network started with 10 long-term deals with advertisers, and has since added more – most of them multi-year.

While Monday's numbers were unremarkable – O'Donnell had 497,000 total viewers at 7 p.m. followed by 333,000 for Winfrey at 8 – the shows did better than OWN has on a typical day.

From July through October, the network averaged 116,000 viewers throughout the day, down from Discovery Health's daily average of 147,000. OWN was also down from Discovery Health in primetime, and – more disturbingly – among women 25 to 54, its target demographic.

On any other network, that might be the cue for some tan, buxom bimbos to start throwing champagne bottles. But that won't happen on OWN. 

Fox News quoted an unnamed person close to OWN this week who suggested that Winfrey's determination to avoid fighting or conflict has been an obstacle to success.

Winfrey has many stipulations on what could and could not be shown, the person said: "Everything had to be uplifting, and no negative stereotypes. Everything had to be approved by Oprah in order to get on the air. It wasn’t like she wasn’t looking at it or paying attention.”

The description of Winfrey's hands-on role dovetails with her own past descriptions of her involvement.

Winfrey, who took on the title of "permanent CEO" in July and vowed to turn the struggling network around, once told the Wall Street Journal of her role in programming, "I am hands-on, digging in there, looking through every tape. … I'm not just up to my knees. I'm up to my thighs."

Asked how involved Winfrey is in network's day-to-day operations, Logan said he didn't know when she found time to sleep.

The typical knock on the network – including from your humble correspondent – has been that Winfrey's fans want to see more of her on OWN, not just shows she approves.

Winfrey is working hard to make herself more visible, not only hosting "Lifeclass" this week but taking part in online chats with fans each night after it airs. She'll also begin her next talk show, "Oprah's Next Chapter," in January.

After the debut of Saturday's three new shows, "Our America With Lisa Ling" will return Sunday. "Ask Oprah's All Stars" will also return this fall.

Two of Saturday's shows have reality formats: "Don't Tell the Bride," in which grooms will plan weddings on their own, and "Sweetie Pie's," which focuses on a family-run business. But don't look for the main characters on either show to brawl in hot tubs or throw up on themselves at DUI checkpoints.

The decision to stay classy is in keeping with Winfrey's longstanding dream for the network. She has said that she and longtime companion Stedman Graham were bemoaning "the state of trash TV" on May 14, 1992 – she recorded the date in her journal – when she came up with the idea of her own network.

The inspirational approach also makes business sense, said Horizon Media senior vice president of research Brad Adgate, who noted that it worked for "The Oprah Winfrey Show" for 25 years.

"That's their brand; that's what made Oprah stand out," he said. "Her show and a lot of her classic telecasts always left you warm and fuzzy. That's what made her popular, that's what makes advertisers migrate to her, and viewers. It kind of offers counterprogramming to all those networks that are doing that."

Still, he says, the network is "clearly… not doing the numbers they should." He said it seems to be having trouble standing out from the myriad of cable stations, and that better promotion and shows would help.

The peaceful state of OWN's programming is almost a perfect opposite of the network's history of drama: Winfrey named herself permanent CEO and chief creative officer in July, replacing Christina Norman, after the network failed to catch fire in its first few months. It wasn't for lack of funding.

In August 2010, Discovery Communications, which co-owns OWN with Winfrey, boosted its initial $100 million commitment by $89 million. In February it committed another $50 million, mostly to go towards programming.

Logan and Salata were named co-presidents at the same time Winfrey took on the expanded role. Robin Schwartz, the network's previous president, left well before the network launched after 10 months on the job.

Asked if the changes in top management were over, Logan joked: "My card key worked this morning. I'll let you know if it doesn't tomorrow morning."

He was more certain about this much: OWN won't cheapen Winfrey's brand for the sake of short-term success.

"This network wasn’t given to her to be the 502nd network on cable," he said. "It was given to her to do something different."