Winfrey revels in OWN profitability, ratings

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey
Jason Merritt / Getty Images

Associated Press

“Oh my God, worst hairdo ever,” exclaims Oprah Winfrey, catching sight of her 1990s talk-show self on an OWN office TV showing Oprah: Where Are They Now? But she glances approvingly at another monitor showing a Tyler Perry sitcom.

While the talk show – hair aside – represents the glory days of Winfrey’s past, Perry’s The Haves and the Have Nots is part of a brightening future for the Oprah Winfrey Network.

OWN is in the black for the first time since its rocky start 2 1/2 years ago. More than 30 new advertisers are joining original heavyweight sponsors Procter & Gamble and General Electric, and are paying higher rates as the channel has found its programming and distribution footing.

Headlines about profitability and audience growth have replaced the drumbeat of speculation that her ambitious venture with Discovery Communications might end up a costly flop and an uncharacteristic failure for her.

Now, she says, “rewarding” is the word for her experience at OWN, both as the chairwoman and CEO shaping the channel and as a viewer lodestone who hosts several series including Oprah’s Next Chapter and Oprah’s Lifeclass.

“I no longer have such fear and anxiety about it. I really have more confidence in my decisions,” Winfrey said. “In the beginning, I was in a lot of meetings where people said, `You don’t understand cable.’ … I’d say, `But I do understand the audience. Aren’t people the same?’ ”

The answer is yes, says Winfrey, who’s enjoying a career renaissance with OWN’s turnaround and her return to big-screen acting in the hit film Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

For the year to date, viewership is up 22 percent among the target audience of adult women and 23 percent among all viewers compared to last year, according to Nielsen Co. In the third quarter, prime-time viewership among women 25 to 54 and total viewers each are up more than 60 percent compared to 2012.

For August, OWN drew a channel-high 536,000 prime-time viewers, a fraction of the millions that watched Winfrey’s talk show but respectable for a developing cable channel.

Instead of defending staff layoffs and early misses including Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show, Winfrey and her executive team can wax passionate about OWN’s audience empowerment mission, nascent stars including motivational speaker Iyanla Vanzant and upbeat series like the newly announced reality show Crazy.Sexy.Life. The network is also featuring fresh-out-of-rehab Lindsay Lohan in an eight-part docuseries based on her life.

“They are finally hitting their stride and the expectations the network had when it was launched are finally starting to be reached,” said analyst Brad Adgate of Horizon Media. “Oprah is back to being part of the conversation.”

The channel’s profile got major boosts from Winfrey’s interviews with Whitney Houston’s daughter, Lance Armstrong and Lohan.

In March 2012, when more than 3 million people tuned in to hear Bobbi Kristina Brown talk about the late Houston, it “was a very significant event for us, because what it really showed was if you get the content right, people will find you,” said OWN President Erik Logan.

“I didn’t know how difficult it would be and how long it would take me to get to the point where I could at least see that this is the reason I did this,” Winfrey said. “I can actually say wow, what an incredible journey and landing I had.”

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