Hey Oprah, the Scripts You Need Most to Be Reading Are Not About Putting You in a Broadway Play

May 20, 2011

[Editor's Note: This commentary first appeared on Jeff Grimshaw's The TV News, which can be found at www.thetvnews.tv, and we appreciate Jeff letting us reprint it.]

I was privileged to run the PR Department at King World for almost a decade, so I had the good fortune of getting a close-up view of the extraordinary person that is Oprah Winfrey.

She can move mountains, and I think she’s going to have to do it again, this time moving her mountain of fans from her syndicated show to her network.

It’s been a bumpy ride for the Oprah Winfrey Network. There’s been continuing turnover in the executive ranks, and there have been limited programming successes. But, because of the enormous goodwill Oprah has generated over the years and the tremendous influence she wields, OWN will have a unique opportunity to relaunch this fall. With Oprah’s syndicated series gone, fans will be even more motivated to look for her network. And when they get there, I think they’re going to want to find Oprah with a significant on-screen presence.

Certainly, the announcement of "Oprah’s Next Chapter," starting later this year, is a big step in the right direction. But in recent days the messaging has been muddled. Two weeks ago, Oprah was quoted as saying, “With the final taping of the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ only a few weeks away, I will soon be able to devote my full energies to the Oprah Winfrey Network.”

Then, last week, USA Today wrote, “Despite the fact that she said her Oprah Winfrey Network requires more attention from her, Oprah also plans to head to the New York stage. Soon. ‘I have a stack of plays in my bag right now that I am reading,’ she said. ‘Yes, this is really going to happen. … Life is too short.’”

Well, we know that Oprah can multitask, but with viewers, distributors and advertisers hoping for better days ahead at OWN, I don’t think that’s the best positioning for the network right now.

Clearly, with Discovery’s Peter Liguori taking the helm, there’s great optimism the network will improve, and that should take some of the pressure off Oprah. Four new shows are launching in June, and Rosie O’Donnell starts in September.

But it still is the Oprah Winfrey Network, so the PR challenge for the foreseeable future is that a clear and consistent message should emphasize that OWN is Oprah’s top priority, and, come this fall, she’s going to be there in a big, big way, no matter what else might be on her agenda.#

3 Comments

  1. Good analysis from someone who knows what he’s talking about. Still, I wonder whether Oprah and her partners made a fundamental error in naming a network after her.
    A great deal of Oprah’s appeal hinges upon her persona as a trusted friend, who shares the best self-help tips, celebrity visits and other TV staples. It’s no small trick to transfer that audience affection to a stable of lesser hosts and lower-budget shows. Oprah risks cheapening her image by crossing the line from impresario to huckster.
    Also, fans of the syndicated Oprah could accept (tolerate?) her frequent detours into advocacy and new age philosophy — largely thanks to Oprah’s masterful light touch. But a similarly-preachy Oprah-branded channel might quickly become a target for ridicule. One good barometer will be next Fall’s skits on SNL.
    Like anyone who’s had the pleasure of meeting Oprah, I’m betting her deep common sense will ultimately find the right formula. But it will likely be a rough journey.

  2. Once her syndicated show is over, many fans will immediately begin having withdrawal symptoms. You are correct in saying that she better give major attention to OWN or it will become GOwNE!
    For her to say she is reading plays because life is too short suggests that she wants others to implement her ideas and allow her the freedom of not working on a daily show.
    Does OWN have any ownership of Oprah in syndication? Will someone be running a “Best of Oprah”? The need for an “Oprah” show has not diminished. Hmmm.

  3. Arthur you’re onto something here.
    In the LA Times a few weeks ago, Joe Flint commented about new interim OWN president, Peter Liguori, saying he’s “a charmer, who knows how to schmooze talent.”
    Well Peter’s biggest talent schmooze challenge will be Winfrey. She has said in an email to the staff announcing Norman’s departure, “I will soon be able to turn my full energies to working with you all.” (after the conclusion of The Oprah Show). At the same time, OWN executives have also announced a delay to Winfrey’s flagship show, Oprah’s Next Chapter, which will now launch in January 2012 instead of this fall after an Oprah vacation added Discovery CEO, David Zaslav. 
    But I thought “rOWN” was burning? Ratings below Discovery Health. The last two leaders fired. And cash being consumed at an alarming rate. (Not sure about Zaslav’s comment about the net being profitable in the first year…)
    The first thing Peter is going to have to do is set a clear course. Replace smooth talk with straight objectives. And find a way to get Oprah engaged and on that air–not in January of 2012 after she’s taken a vacation & done “Broadway”–but now when the network needs a reboot and the followers need a leader.

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