Art Bell

I have been watching with great interest the progress of Discovery’s new cable channel co-venture with Oprah Winfrey, OWN. For those of you who somehow missed the fanfare around the launch in January, Oprah and Discovery teamed up to convert what had been their moderately unsuccessful (although fully distributed to some 80 million subscribers) Discovery Health Network. While the early ratings returns for OWN were stellar, as could be expected given the pre-launch hype, ratings have recently settled in at a more terrestrial level. In fact, the New York Times reported in a Monday (February 28th) business section article headlined “Oprah’s New Channel Struggles to Pull In the Viewers” that the ratings were less than Discovery Health’s ratings. Clearly, this was not the idea.

In all fairness, noted the Times, Oprah hasn’t really begun to fight. Her syndicated show doesn’t end until later this year, at which time Oprah will have her own show on OWN three times a week, which (as we all know, and I say this without any irony) is a guaranteed eyeball magnet. Things are bound to get better, ratings wise, but Oprah’s quote in the article caught my eye: “What everyone told me about the cable business is the way you do cable is, you start with a couple of shows, people are used to repeats.” Hmm. She continues: “Oprah viewers were not!” Ahah!

Interesting technical analysis by Oprah, but let me throw in a couple of observations that may be helpful to her in future interviews. But before I get to that, I have to wonder whether Oprah feels suckered into the cable business. Or was she just given the standard line on launching cable television channels that no longer applies (or doesn’t apply in this particular instance).

First: she’s got it right that the traditional route to cable success is low programming volume with high repeats at launch and for the first few years. But one of the reasons this works is that a cable channel historically launched with a small number of subscribers and grew their subscribership through affiliations over some period of time. That means you have an ever growing viewership pool to check in on your limited programming. It’s not new programming, but it’s new to them.

When Oprah says her audience doesn’t like repeats, she’s only three quarters right: nobody likes repeats. But if you’re a channel growing from 10 million subs to 80 million subs over, say, seven years, your subscribers are growing by an average of 10 million new subs (potential viewers) per year. OWN will not be adding viewers this way; viewers initially attracted to the channel will soon tire of the repeats.

Second, hubris comes with a downside. Oprah is the most successful woman in television, entertainment, media, business, and probably the most successful women in the world in lots of categories. All channels launch with great expectations, but Oprah’s channel had the curse of Oprah-guaranteed success attached to it. Viewers checked it out and, predictably, shrugged. The quality bar for cable channels is much higher these days than it was during the 1980’s or even the 90’s. With USA Network, TBS and TNT, and HBO delivering broadcast network quality programming (and beyond), new networks face extremely strong competition for viewership.

The good news for Oprah and her channel is that in the long run she and her programmers and strategists will figure it out, get it right, and build a viable cable channel. But it won’t be shot out of a cannon. Very few channels were instantly and brilliantly successful. Fox News wasn’t, nor was Comedy Central, USA Network, Turner, CNN, or syfy. Fox Business News is still struggling.

In cable television, Oprah, patience is not only a virtue, it’s a necessity.

Just saying.