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OWN-The Oprah Winfrey Network: 5 Ways To Fix What Went Wrong

I know this is a little outside my usual fare but I had to write about this when I saw this item skirt across my desk. OWN, the joint venture between Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications, is slated to lose somewhere in the neighborhood of 143 million dollars this year (a report disputed by Discovery). But even if that figure were incorrect, it would be a stretch to call OWN, a success.

It would seem that OWN had that in its DNA; after all, Oprah and her eponymous TV show had an unparalleled run in syndication. She had the Midas touch, turning authors into best-selling superstars and made her regulars, stars in their own right, spinning off Dr. Phil, Rachel Ray, Dr. Oz and Nate Berkus, all successful except Berkus, whose show was recently canceled.

(Oprah feelin’ me up shortly after my preventive mastectomy)

I’m not a high-paid TV executive, just a wife, mother with more than 20 years of television under my belt. But as a viewer, I have a few guesses as to what went wrong. The question now is what to do to make it right?  I am under no illusions that anyone there will listen to me; I’m just a woman  who writes from her walk-in closet.  But if they did,  this is what I would say is key to making things better.

GET RELEVANT TOPICS:  I admire Oprah for wanting to bring to cable some of the high-minded programing that she did for several seasons on her syndicated show but we have to remember, cable is where cupcakes are king! It’s where the Real Housewives party with The Jersey Shore gang for crying out loud! I think Oprah, envisioned aspiration 24 and 7. Cable is not the place for that, at least not in large doses.

GET RELEVANT CONTENT:   I’m sure the Judd’s are a very nice family, but honestly are people ready to give up a chunk of their time to watch them? I mean outside of hardcore Judd fans? And the O’Neals? While dysfunction reigns in cable, the subjects need to be relevant to the audience today. Does anyone younger than me know or, more importantly, care about Tatum and her father Ryan? It’s all about Snooki and Bravo’s table-turning housewives. OWN also needed content that was bigger, splashier and cast a wider net. One of my friends who’s a TV critic said Oprah needed to tap on the shoulder some of those people she made stars and get them do shows for the new network. I’m not sure they even could or if their lucrative syndication deals would allow it, but I’d venture to say more people would watch a show hosted by Dr. Phil than Naomi Judd.

STAY ON BRAND!  Last summer, I took a quick trip to California. Executives at OWN had asked some producers I had worked with previously, to bring me in. It was my third time out there and my third time meeting with a different management regime, still another part of the problem. As my producers and I grabbed a bite prior to heading into the offices, we were talking about Rosie’s new show, which had been announced and was in production. In between bites of my croissant, I said, “It will never work.” I knew it instinctively, not because I’m so smart, but I have learned a thing or two over the last several years about brands and branding. Rosie on OWN would be like me having a show on Food Network. I don’t cook; it’s not in my heart and positioning myself as one would have been  uncomfortable, for both the talent and the viewer. Rosie’s brand was so very different from Oprah’s, which is way, at least in part, it was canceled after one season.

UNDERSTAND THE AUDIENCE IS DIFFERENT NOW:  There has been a monumental shift in the way we consume information over the last several years and it has underscored that content is truly king. When Oprah had her syndicated show, there were hardcore viewers who would tune in no matter who was on Oprah’s couch; they were tuning in to see her. That has changed and with stunning speed. Content has to be relevant to the lives of the people watching otherwise they’ll go somewhere else to find it. And in this age of DVR’s and video on demand, people can essentially program their own networks, recording and watching based on their own likes.

EMBRACE SOCIAL MEDIA:  Oprah’s on Twitter but I think she can and should do more. A talk show host who IS using social media smartly is Ricki Lake, whose show debuts later this year. The other day I stumbled upon a U-Stream chat where they were talking about what they were planning for the show. That’s right; in my home in New York I was watching the inner workings of a talk show being developed. Every so often Ricki or someone at the table would take a question from the U-Stream chat room or give a shout-out to someone. They are building brand loyalty that way. And guess what else? They are keeping their thumb on the pulse of what’s happening in the country by hearing from real people in real places about their real lives, as opposed to the rarefied air of New York and Los Angeles producer planning meetings. It’s ingenious and will result in story ideas that are real and relevant to people’s lives.

There are other issues, some beyond OWN’S control (like being hard to find on the dial) and some of their own making (multiple management changes). But one thing seems clear; the next change OWN makes, really, REALLY needs to be the right one if the network is going to survive.

Okay your turn. Have you ever seen OWN? Where do you think Oprah went wrong? What would you suggest she do to fix it?

More from GEM

Our Story Begins: Make A Change Today

How Do I Tell Him It’s Over

5 Things To Learn From A Take-This-Job-And-Shove-It Moment


  1. TechyDad

    March 22, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    Way #6: Give Rene Syler her own show. (If they take my advice, can I be a guest star? 😉 )

  2. Christopher Parish

    March 22, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Great article Rene. But I must admit, I won’t be watching Ricki Lake’s return to the talk show world. Based on this article right here:

    I for one do watch soap operas, and I find them more entertaining than talk shows.

  3. Millicent Crisp

    March 22, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    Dear Rene ~ Your point is well-taken! Cable is a completely different animal. I believe the most poignant point that You made was in tapping into the “real” Social Media Network and finding out what they want. I’m sure that being blind sighted by the financial loss will assist in bringing that piece into focus. Thanks so much for sharing. Really lovin’ the hair. Warm regard as always, M

  4. Mike McGinley

    March 22, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    I second TechyDad! I was actually going to write that, but he beat me to it!

    Back to the piece, the part about social media is sooo revelant in this day and age because people sitting at home want to feel as though they are part of the show. They sure will feel that way with interactions from the Oprah Twitter handle, RTs and engagement. With other shows like Ellen and Good Morning America actively engaging users and even the “big names” tweeting back and forth with viewers, OWN has some examples to follow.

  5. Cathi

    March 22, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    I watched a few specific OWN segments in the beginning but haven’t since. Nothing has caught my attention. =/

  6. The Talk Diva

    March 22, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree. When I first heard about the shows that were going to be on OWN, I yawned and took a pass. I actually like the Judds music, but an entire show about their lives, they might as well put me on there. Tatum and Ryan? Really? Obviously the wrong folks were making the decisions. These folks are paid handsomely I’m sure to know all the things you wrote about in your piece. what you just wrote about in your piece.

  7. Becky Motley

    March 22, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    Renee, you rock! 😉

  8. Robyn B

    March 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    I have no idea what channel OWN is on in my area. By the time I flick through the stations, something else has caught my attention.

  9. Bill Mah

    March 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    You should be a studio executive. Your reasons are very good ones on the problems with OWN. I’m not exactly sure what can be done to make OWN to do better. You are right that Rosie’s show just didn’t seem right for OWN and that OWN needs to more relevant with current, more interesting content.

  10. Whitney Eiland

    March 22, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    Funny but I believe the most successful show on OWN is “Welcome To Sweetie Pies”, correct me if I’m wrong…and it’s a reality show. She tried to take her talk show and stretch it to a network, and it was not that entertaining. I do try and watch just to be supportive.

  11. yang

    March 22, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    Iyanla instead of Ro…, Start back e-mailing the peeps and hell ,new show, “Staring me of course” would have been a great out of the box beginning.

  12. Pamela

    March 22, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    Rene, I believe that is a fair assessment. I do like Master Class and Super Soul Sunday, and I am one of the few people in this country that is not that into reality shows. I was surprised when Rosie got a show on OWN, not because I don’t like (she’s great) but because she just didn’t seem to fit. It seems like the more channels we have access to, the less interesting stuff is on.

  13. m.e. johnson

    March 22, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    I just read that she’s in talks with Maria Shriver. That ought to getcher blood pumping. I don’t have cable, don’t care for it but I stopped watching O. a long time ago. She just got so ‘preachy’, like she knows everything, even while mis-judging authors. Don’t get me wrong, people. I think she is a good person. She helps A LOT of people.

    Also, I wonder what percentage of her audience no longer has cable. Lots of folks have had to give it up.

  14. sfoster

    March 22, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    I was also a fan of “Welcome To Sweetie Pies” . When it ended I remember thinking “I hope this is a preview of the kind of shows OWN will be doing”. But nothing like that since.

  15. Engle,D

    March 22, 2012 at 8:57 pm

    They need to hire you as a consultant first of all. She needs a couple of more black shows. Some of the high rating shows on Cable have been with black themes. Oprah made the statement that she didn’t want the Roots Channel but maybe a little root can save her. She needs to do like FOX did CW, UPN..start black and when you get on your feet act like you never knew them.

  16. Shannon S. Pritchard

    March 22, 2012 at 10:45 pm

    Rene, you are so, so right. So many channels, so many choices, so little time! If I’m going to make the time to even DVR someone’s show, it has to be compelling and relevant – or smashingly escapist and funny! Frankly, I think Oprah was losing viewership by the time she “retired,” because ONLY the diehards were still dialing in because she was the draw.

  17. Lashell

    March 23, 2012 at 9:17 am

    I have never seen OWN. Discontinued cable four years ago. I don’t own a TV. If I hear about news, it is through internet and social media. Oprah hasn’t grabbed my attention for a while now….she is a great person, don’t get me wrong. But she seems a bit out of touch with what everyday people are going through. People are losing their homes, jobs, how government works is what everyone cares about now. People want to know they can do better, where are they going wrong. Some influential people won’t always tell you…but Oprah would at one time. I wish she’d revisit some very real issues we Americans are having….like education system, why many home environments are LACKING, how to help single-parent homes become more balance….many don’t want to be bailed out, but rather show them how to do better. What about finances?? Topics like that…

  18. Krystal

    March 24, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    I think Oprah’s producers made a HUGE mistake by not casting ME when I auditioned for the OWN network. Ha! I’m sure I would have taken the network to another level.

  19. Angela

    March 25, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    Rene you have your hand on the pulse. I agree with all of your points especially the utilization of social media. If Oprah is to reach the mainstream public she must have information that is relevant to today’s society. Employment,healthcare,education,housing just to name a few topics and of course uplifting info as well.

  20. Will Jones

    March 26, 2012 at 8:37 am

    I don’t know anything about the ins-and-outs of making television shows, but as a writer, I’m a natural born spectator. I’ve watched more TV than most, and I’ve watched people my whole life. It’s what writers do.

    What was wrong with the Rosie Show is the exact same thing that’s wrong with the whole OWN station and I can explain it in three words: slow, boring, and safe.

    Oprah got to where she is by taking big chances. She did shows that others wouldn’t touch. On Monday she faced down the Klan on race issues. Then on Tuesday she’d be in a town that was terrified of homosexuals and AIDS. It made you scared to miss her show on Wednesday because you knew it would be great, you knew the questions would be fast paced and hard hitting, and you knew she wouldn’t pull any punches. She would say the things that we were all thinking. It’s what made her great!

    Even when Rosie had her old show, she spoke her mind, even if it meant getting in hot water. But when Rosie hit OWN, she looked almost comatose, scared she might say or do the wrong thing. She played everything as safely as possible. BORING!

    And OWN is the same way. It’s not funny, or hard hitting, or gut-wrenching… It’s a bunch of shows no one really wants to see, about people no one wants to be like, who all talk like our mothers.
    “Lead a better life. Always wear a jacket in case it gets cold. Don’t eat that; you’ll get gas.” Who wants that coming out of their television for any length of time? Oprah was one of my heroes, but she’s so much better than she’s letting herself be.

    If she wants to fix what wrong, it’s this simple: be fast, be funny, and be fearless! We don’t want an hour’s worth lectures on our colon; we want stories that move nearly as fast as we can click on them online for our ever-shortening attention spans. Don’t preach to us about how great our lives can be if we just eat more fiber; make us laugh again, get our attention, make us care about the things you’re saying. And for the love of GOD, don’t bore us with safe shows! Have your hosts say and do the things that others would do if they weren’t scared to do them. Find someone who’s completely REAL and then let her be REAL!!! Keep the sensors on their toes! Have people say, “Oh know the hell she didn’t just say that!”

    Dammit! Get me a pen and a cup of coffee and I’ll write a show for OWN for free!!!

  21. pattyrowland

    March 26, 2012 at 8:40 am

    hey gem! interesting article/thoughts…after oprah’s big farewell to broadcast tv, i honestly forget that she has her own network…up until a few months ago, i thought it was a pay network! needless to say, if i don’t see her on my abc daytime schedule, she’s not that relevant.

  22. Mitch Mitchell

    March 30, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    What’s funny is that my wife loves Oprah’s network and everything about it except, of all things, Sweetie Pie’s. lol I think Oprah gives her exactly what she was looking for, so maybe the issue isn’t that it’s not reaching its audience as much as which audience it is that Oprah, as a marketer, really wants to reach.

    For instance, my wife and I are close to Oprah’s age. That’s an age group I can see Oprah capturing well. But the demographic age group that most channels are reaching for are much younger because they tend to spend more and are more engaged. Maybe there needs to be more of a balance aiming for both networks so my wife doesn’t lose what people like her want, while attracting a younger group of people.

    In essence, the same problems both BET and TVOne have faced, starting out aiming for one thing and having to change to something else in a search for market share.

  23. Carrell

    March 31, 2012 at 11:24 am

    I totally agree with TechDad, Rene needs her own talk show, she talks about real issues that peoples can relate too, Now let me give my take on Oprah, no disrespect to Oprah., I think she have ran her course in television, now it time for her to move on, she’s very wealthy, another Thing who wants to here about the life of wealthy people, I want to here about real issues that’s Going on in the real world so speak.

  24. CM

    April 5, 2012 at 1:50 am

    I stumbled across your website after having a discussion with my Husband concerning the Own Network and the current shows. I wanted to hear if others out there shared my feelings so I did a google search and found your article. It supports my same thoughts!! I love Oprah and all that she represents. I was happy and when she started the network. However, I do agree she needs more variety then the Judd’s, Beverly Johnson, and the interviews around tragedy and triumph. They are necessary to hear about just not 24/7. I think she can expand her range and still maintain the substance she is looking for to represent her network. I am going to continue to support Oprah either by watching some of the shows because I think its important to her continued success so much that I have told my girlfriends to give up at least one or two of the crazy reality shows that have no real substance and replace it with a show on the Own network. I tease them because we’re in our 40’s watching some of the same reality drama as our 21 year old adult children, but this speaks to your comment about how audiences have changed. On another positive note I absolutely love watching Sweetie Pies on Oprah’s network and have replaced watching the food network channel for this show. I like your website and look forward to reading more of your articles and will pass your website along to my other friends ….. Keep up the great work!

  25. Jim Walker

    May 7, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    Syler, WE need to run a network! We could make it sing.

  26. Dave

    May 7, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    I’m a huge fan of Oprah (how could you NOT be given what she has accomplished?) but I don’t watch her network. Aside from the fact that I’m not in her demographic, the main reason I’m not a viewer is because the people who appear on OWN do not look like me.

    Oprah definitely transcends race, but it would be nice if the races who helped her attain her success were represented. I quickly scanned her network during the day (and evening) and I didn’t see one single topic, program or talent that would resonate with people of color. I did see promos for “Welcome To Sweetie Pies” and “Beverly’s Full House,” the latter of which I started watching (or in my dvr’ing). But both of those show airs on Saturday, as do many black/ethnic programs across the country which air in the wee weekend hours. (In the news business, black reporters have nicknamed this “the weekend ghetto” because we always end up on the weekend. WHOLE ‘NOTHER TOPIC.)

    Ironically, “Sweetie’s Pies” is the highest-rated show on OWN, so why not put it in an appropriate time slot?

    Say what you want about the BRAVOs and WE’s of the crowded cable world, but they put their minorities front and center. And ot all the shows are stereotypical, strident, caricatures, either. WE’s “Braxton Family Values” is doing great numbers as is the new “Mary, Mary” reality show. OWN could take a page from their book that aspirational, positive, programming doesn’t have to be a boring, earnest retreads of “life-affirming platitudes we’ve already heard.


  27. Bridget

    May 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    I have seen OWN. I really loved seeing the Oprah:Behind the Scenes episodes after the Oprah show went off the air. It was like watching a reality series. I think she went wrong by not having relevant and modern content. I agree with you– people are watching Basketball Wives, RHOA and Jersey Shore. The Judds could be a show on CMTV; Ryan and Tatum could have a show on E!, but really late, late at night. Probably at 2 a.m. They are just not that interesting if you don’t know what Paper Moon is.. or The Way We Were. She’s got too many of her friends on. I really don’t care about Fergie. Now a show about Kate or Pippa would get viewers. They’re current. Fergie is not. At least, not in the royal watching-not-dieting-trying to turn my life around-way. My 2 cents. I think it’d be great to see you back on tv. I think you totally get the power of social media and would harness it the way you say that Ricki Lake has.

  28. Peggy

    May 9, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Oprah choosing Rosie as a host on OWN was an indication to me that she perhaps she had no clue as to who or what topics would gain the following of today’s audiences. Since I only get to watch OWN when I am caring for my grands; I am highly disappointed searching the schedule. I enjoy Sweetie Pies, Super Sunday segments and….that’s it. Perhaps Oprah will read this spot on article, Renee, and make changes that will drive her network in another direction….upward

  29. PiecesOfEight

    May 15, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    This is not directed to Rene…

    To understand why Rosie did not capture the audience OWN wanted, you have to understand the politics of the CORPORATE MEDIA.

    Big corporations support TV shows by paying for ad/air time.
    If they dont like something one of your shows might say they wont pay for advertising and thus kill your shows success.

    The day Rosie ODonnell put info on her show about Occupy Wall Street was the day the advertisers started pulling out and all promos for her show were pulled from print and tv.

    The advertisers/big corporations didnt want her to educate you the little people, about TRUTH and so they killed her show…

    Same thing with Roseanne Barrs Lifetime Reality Show. They saw it becoming a political platform that could hurt them and they dropped ads and Lifetime switched it around to different nights and it died.

    Oprahs network has NOTHING for me now that Rosie was cancelled…

    The problem with TV is that people are tiring of tv self help hucksters trying to sell them junk and reality tv presenting a societal view thats not based on reality so the dumbed down viewers dont even recognize truth or realness away from tv anymore….

    TV right now is a huge infomercial for false ideas and broke down dreams and until we fix that nothing good is coming out of it.

  30. Donnadara

    July 18, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    I have to disagree. I like the high-minded and if I see one more reality show, I will die. I love the OWN network. Our America with Lisa Ling, the Master Class, loved, loved, loved the Lifeclass program. I refused to watch her interview with the Kardashians. I’ve never watched Sweetie Pies. If she starts airing the same cookie cutter reality programming as everyone else, I will stop watching.

  31. Rene Syler

    July 18, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    @Donnadara: I was speaking sort of tongue-in-cheek but the fact is what they are programming currently is not working. They have to switch it up. THX for your comment

  32. Mike W.

    December 5, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    It figures that I wouldn’t find this post until MONTHS after it was first published, but… I must say that as much as I like and admire Oprah (I met her once back in the late 80’s when my TV news career was just beginning at WBRZ-TV in Baton Rouge), I don’t regularly watch OWN, primarily because it’s programmed for women and I’m a man.

    Oprah admitted that if she had it to do over again, she would not have launched the network before ending her syndicated show. OWN needed far more of her attention than she was able to give at the beginning. That said, the programming at launch was horrible, in my opinion. I agree with everything you said, GEM, about the Judds and the O’Neals. I just wasn’t interested in watching their celebrity dysfunction.

    I also found a lot of the programming depressing. I am not trying diminish or disrespect the stories of victims of various injustices, but I don’t turn on television to be bombarded by one depressing show after another. Once can only take so much of subjects like spousal abuse, marital infidelity, terminal illness, sexual abuse, etc. Again, I think they are important subjects, but I just can’t watch that for hours at a time on a daily basis.

    I also wasn’t interested in watching Dr. Phil reruns, ad nauseum. I don’t watch his show in first-run, so I darn sure didn’t want to see five episodes airing back-to-back.

    I agree that cookie-cutter reality isn’t the answer, either. Though, the few episode of Sweetie Pie’s that I’ve seen have been entertaining.

    I do think GEM on OWN would be great!!! 😉
    Just my 2-cents worth.

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Combing the aisles at Target in search of the best deal on Cheerios, it hit Rene Syler like the stench of a dirty diaper on a hot summer’s day. Not only is perfection overrated its utterly impossible! Suddenly empowered, she figuratively donned her cape, scooped up another taco kit for dinner and Good Enough Mother was born.

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