Annals of Oprah: Why OWN isn’t working

Has Oprah lost her touch? Probably.


NEW YORK, May 7, 2012 — Oprah Winfrey’s OWN isn’t working for the simple reason that Oprah herself seems passé.

Why opine on this subject now?  Because the news is all over the place this week that losses are mounting at OWN.

Among other places, a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal says Discovery has sunk $312 million into OWN with no predictions of profitability except for a lukewarm forecast that losses are expected to continue through 2012.

So has Oprah lost her touch?  In a word, yes.  How?  Well, that’s always hard to say.  For some, the decline in her influence stems from the repetitive statements she issues continually, in public appearances and interviews, about “her journey” and “her mission” and her “legacy.”  Truth be told, it all feels tired, not to mention off-putting.

It also comes across as self-centered and egotistical, as if the viewing audience has some kind of stake in helping to ensure Oprah Winfrey achieves fulfillment in her “journey” and accomplishes her “mission,” which has something to do with empowerment and living one’s “best life” and yada yada yada.

Taken together, the shows on OWN play like the TV equivalent of having to eat your spinach.  And here’s an observation I once made about self-help: I once was acquainted with a guy whose bookshelves in his New York City apartment were filled with self-help books — perhaps the most I’d seen in any one place that had been purchased over the years by a single person.

Perhaps he was sincere in his search for guidance when he bought these books, but I was fairly certain he hadn’t read very many of them.  More than likely, he read part of them, perhaps the introduction and first chapter, and then never finished them.  Why?  Because self-help books, like self-help TV shows, are decidedly unentertaining (is that a word?).  In fact, I can say from personal experience with the few self-help books I have tried to read that reading them is a chore.

Try watching “Oprah’s Life Class” — yes, a “class” about “life” led by Oprah, with the assistance of some guest motivational speaker — and you’ll see what I mean.

When you really stop and look at it, there never really was any evidence, much less a guarantee, that Oprah Winfrey could build an entire TV network from the ground up in the first place.  She was hugely successful in a variety of endeavors in the TV business, but launching an entire network was not on her resume.

Oh, yes, there was plenty of evidence that Oprah was capable of making a lot of money for herself and anyone who had the good fortune to go into business with her.  She’d done so with her syndicated daytime show, which probably generated — what? — a billion dollars or more over its 25 years.  And she added to that sum with the other daytime shows and personalities she championed and developed — Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Rachael Ray.

But even more than those successes, the impression that Oprah could mine gold from virtually anything she touched began to form long ago, when her (seemingly) off-the-cuff endorsements of exotic soaps or artisanal popcorn could make the entrepreneurs behind these products suddenly flush with orders, not to mention money.

Nothing represented Oprah’s power in this regard more than her impact on the book business.  Sure, that was fun while it lasted, especially if you were the publisher of some book Oprah just happened to read recently and then mention on her talk show.

But like afternoon talk shows, the book business has changed a lot in the last few years.  Who knows if Oprah could drive book sales today, when books themselves are looking more and more passé.

Certainly, a prominent TV personality falling victim to changing tastes is no crime, especially if you’re Oprah and already a billionaire.  You know, most people don’t get a chance to strike it rich twice in a lifetime.  And it could be that Oprah’s best life was the life she had when she dominated daytime TV for one hour every afternoon.

Now, those halcyon days are gone, and it appears increasingly unlikely that Oprah will be able to return to anything resembling them anytime soon.

Contact Adam Buckman:


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