In the spring of 2012, Oprah Winfrey found herself in what was for her an unusual position: She was failing.
OWN, the feel-good cable network she had launched on New Year’s Day 2011, was struggling to find an audience, its low ratings unable to meet even the modest internal targets set before its debut. The smaller-than-expected viewership meant dozens of staffers had to be laid off as Winfrey and her partners at Discovery Communications moved to stanch the flow of red ink. Big programming bets, including an expensive talk show hosted by Rosie O’Donnell, had gone bust. Almost every media account of own contained descriptors like “ratings challenged” and “beleaguered,” while one report by Wall Street analyst SNL Kagan even went so far as to speculate that if ratings didn’t improve, the network’s demise was only a matter of time. It was against this backdrop in April 2012 that Winfrey went on CBS This Morning and made a startling confession to co-anchors Charlie Rose and Gayle King: “Had I known that it was this difficult,” she said of OWN, “I might have done something else.”
The tsuris surrounding OWN’s launch were unusual for Winfrey, whose career has been marked by a series of auspicious starts. The Oprah Winfrey Show was an immediate hit when it debuted in national syndication back in 1986. A decade later, Winfrey’s book club began changing reading habits with its first selection. O, The Oprah Magazine was a success the minute it began rolling off presses in 2000. By contrast, OWN seemed troubled even before it went live. Winfrey and Discovery chief David Zaslav first announced their plan to transform Discovery Health Channel into OWN back in January 2008, with an eye on a fall 2009 launch. But behind-the-scenes tumult (including the exit of OWN’s first president less than a year after her hire) delayed the channel’s debut for well over a year. Making matters worse, during OWN’s birthing process, Winfrey still had her full-time job hosting TV’s No. 1 daytime talk show. She feared—correctly, it turned out—that her split focus would hurt the network.
Winfrey, of course, finally did give up The Oprah Winfrey Show. And two months after taping her final show in May 2011, she named herself CEO and chief creative officer of the network and tapped trusted lieutenants Sheri Salata and Erik Logan to serve as presidents under her. The new trio didn’t work miracles overnight: Winfrey’s “I might have done something else” lament came nearly a year after they took day-to-day oversight of OWN. But as the network prepares to mark its third anniversary in January, evidence of an OWN turnaround is abundant. A new deal bringing Tyler Perry’s TV output to OWN has yielded immediate results, with his over-the-top soap opera, The Haves and the Have Nots, giving the network its largest audience for a weekly series. (A second show, the comedy Love Thy Neighbor, has drawn fewer eyeballs but has nonetheless greatly improved OWN’s performance on Wednesday nights.) The network’s Saturday lineup of reality shows regularly ranks among the top-ten cable networks in OWN’s target demo of adult women under 55. And while last month’s heavily hyped chat with Lindsay Lohan didn’t pop in the ratings, Winfrey has landed a slew of other one-on-one celebrity sit-downs (Rihanna, Lance Armstrong) that have drawn big Nielsen numbers and much-needed buzz. Combined, these successes have dramatically altered OWN’s standing in the cable universe: It finished August as one of the top-twenty ad-supported networks in prime time among its target female demo, with its overall audience this summer surging by more than 60 percent over the previous year. Perhaps most important, the whispers about OWN’s imminent demise have been replaced by headlines touting its comeback, including the ones in July noting that, after years of losses, the network had notched its first-ever profitable quarter. “We have turned it around,” Winfrey says. “And I’m in a position now, sooner than I thought I would be, of being able to see the summit—I’m not at the summit, but I’m able to see it.”