Oprah Winfrey Network struggles to entice viewers

Industry watchers wonder what's next for the Oprah Winfrey Network after a week of shake-ups.

Industry-watchers say better programming, more Oprah needed

Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey greets her half-sister Patricia on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show from January 2011. (George Burns/Harpo Productions/Associated Press)

After a tumultuous week at the Oprah Winfrey Network that included layoffs and the cancellation of The Rosie Show, industry watchers are wondering what’s next for the beleaguered network.

On Monday, OWN announced it would cut 20 per cent of its staff — 30 people — in order to restructure the New York and Los Angeles offices. AP reported that it was a move intended to cut down on duplication between Harpo Inc. and Discovery Communications, which are partners in the venture.

"As CEO, I have a responsibility to chart the course for long-term success for the network. To wholly achieve that long-term success, this was a necessary next step," Oprah Winfrey said in a statement.

The previous Friday, the network reported that it was cancelling  Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show. Ratings were at issue, as the show only had about 200,000 viewers a night, according to the New York Times.

The network launched in January 2011, and by May its CEO, Christina Norman was dismissed and Winfrey stepped into the role. Ratings have been short of the network's targets; the high point was in mid-March when Winfrey interviewed Whitney Houston’s daughter Bobbi Kristina, which garnered 3.5 million viewers.

In Canada, the station is carried by Corus Entertainment.

Industry watchers say content is the problem

Ramin Setoodeh, a senior writer at Newsweek, says the Oprah brand had been extremely strong throughout her career, but lack of a strong executive team hobbled the network. 

He added the content is not reflective of the current tastes of the television audience.

"I think the biggest problem with the network is that it feels kind of outdated. It feels kind of like something out of the 90s. It’s supposed to be uplifting and inspirational, but that’s not what TV is about anymore. We’re more interested in watching people throwing things, in pulling each other’s hair, in calling each other names, so this whole idea of an entire network based on uplifting inspirational programming, I just don’t think it’s sitting with viewers," he said.

Arlene Dickinson is the owner of Venture Communications, and a Dragon on CBC’s Dragon’s Den.  Dickinson  says OWN  failed to read the Canadian market appropriately and has also fumbled an opportunity to innovate in the social media sphere, although Winfrey is on Twitter.

"This is a woman who could be completely owning and delivering great content through social media and she just is on the outskirts of it. She's not doing as great a job at that as I think she needs to be," she told CBC News.

Stay tuned

Yet, "my sense is that Oprah is not down for the count," she says.

Last month Discovery CEO David Zaslav told analysts that significant funding will be added to the network, and that it doesn’t expect a profit for at least two years, the Associated Press reported.  Discovery has invested $312 million US to date.

With files from Associated Press