In Depth

'Oprah Builds a Network': Winfrey Tries to Play OWN's Troubles for Ratings -- Documentary Also Gives Viewers Want They Want Most: More Oprah

By Jeanine Poggi
Advertising Age

Oprah Winfrey has a long history of turning her personal struggles into "aha! moments" that resonate with viewers. Now she is hoping to turn the troubled start for OWN into ratings for the network with the two-part documentary "Oprah Builds a Network."

In Sunday night's episode, Ms. Winfrey said her celebrity status was both a great asset for the fledgling network and a great detriment because it raised expectations "beyond anything I was capable of doing on my own."

She also reiterated regret over remaining primarily focused on the final months of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" when OWN was starting out. "I can honestly say I wasn't committed to the network because I was committed to the show," she said.

OWN wasn't ready when it started broadcasting on Jan. 1, 2011, Ms. Winfrey added, but executives hadn't wanted to disappoint fans by delaying its arrival.

OWN, a joint venture with Discovery Communications and Harpo Productions, has attracted just 283,000 viewers in prime time, significantly below the 6 million or so viewers who watched her daytime talk show.

The network has also been plagued with a rotation of executives, including the departure of Ms. Winfrey's longtime friend and chief, Lisa Erspamer, in January. OWN laid off a fifth of its staff and canceled Rosie O'Donnell's talk show shortly after.

Ms. Winfrey took over as CEO at the beginning of the year and the network appears to have finally started to get in the groove, with "Oprah's Next Chapter" attracting 1.2 million viewers for the second part of her interview with the Kardashians last month. The show also saw success with its exclusive interview with Whitney Houston's family.

"Oprah Builds a Network" fits into the network's general strategy of giving viewers want they want: more Oprah Winfrey.

The first episode also saw her address the Nielsen "drama," her addiction to Twitter and the lack of intelligent women on TV. "My heart is my brand," she said. "Wherever I am I bring my heart fully, 100%, therein lies my brand."

The documentary also served as a promotional tool to plug OWN's upcoming reality series "Lovetown USA," in which Ms. Winfrey and two matchmakers take over Kingsland, Ga., for 30 days to help singles find love with the help of the entire town.

The second part of "Oprah Builds a Network" will air on July 15 at 9 p.m.