Oprah Winfrey's taking on the title of "permanent CEO" of OWN was a bold admission that the network needs her help. But she could help more in front of the camera than behind a desk.
OWN averaged 137,000 daily viewers, down from 154,000 for Discovery Health in the second quarter of this year, according to Nielsen.
It has also burned through money.
There are hundreds of excellent CEOs, but only one Oprah Winfrey. OWN's success may depend on the Queen of Talk's willingness to do what she does best — and may do better than anyone in television history.
"I think she would have liked to enjoy a little more time off from her TV show after 25 years," said Horizon Media senior vice president of research Brad Adgate. "She might have to at least initally have more of an on-air presence, and back off once it gets its sea legs."
Winfrey captivates an audience like no one else. The episode that capped 25 years of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" scored her 16 million viewers and commanded $1 million for each 30 seconds of ad time. To the end, an army of fans hung on her inspirational advice and personal revealations — including one of a secret half-sister.
But Winfrey's success has been less certain behind the scenes. After helping launch Oxygen in 2000, she resigned from its board of directors, later telling the Baltimore Sun, "the channel did not reflect my voice."
OWN does, but her fans want more than just a reflection of her voice — they want her. Winfrey's experiment with curating the network with shows that showcase her interests and highlight her friends' talents has been disappointing at best.
For all the hype surrounding OWN — and money OWN co-owner Discovery Communications has poured into it — OWN's ratings are slightly down from those of Discovery Health, the network Winfrey's replaced.
The solution, as it has been in the past, may be for Oprah to again seize on her fans' connection with her by appearing more often on the network that bears her name. Her gift has always been in communicating with people directly — something Discovery Communications tacitly acknowledged when it boosted OWN's funding last year.
In August, after Discovery said it was burning through its $100 million commitment to the network more quickly than expected, Winfrey agreed to star in a new OWN show — and Discovery promptly found OWN another $89 million. In February, it committed another $50 million.
Winfrey's gift for enthralling audiences even extends to the group of CEOs she now joins. She was the star of investment banker Herb Allen’s annual gathering of moguls in Sun Valley last week, keeping an audience of Hollywood executives and Internet billionaires rapt.
"She talked about how she could have an impact on people’s lives," said one high-profile attendee. "She didn’t talk about money."
She doesn't need to. Because no matter how much OWN spends, she is her own ace in the hole. Winfrey can always raise her network's profile — or revenues — by stepping into the studio lights.
Winfrey promised even before OWN debuted that she would be involved with every aspect of programming at the network, telling The Wall Street Journal: "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."
But what a waste of her time and talents that would be.