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OWN shakeup tests Winfrey, Discovery relationship

By Lynn Elber

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 21 2012 4:03 p.m. MDT

LOS ANGELES — Oprah Winfrey is used to running the show, whether it was her hit daytime TV program or the fledgling cable channel named for her and which she rules as chairman and chief executive.

But this week's Oprah Winfrey Network shakeup, which included a 20 percent staff layoff, thrusts her into a new dynamic: power-sharing with a top executive from the company that's bankrolled OWN with $300 million-plus.

It's a crucial moment for the media queen, who made OWN her next big move after "The Oprah Winfrey Show," and for OWN itself: Can Winfrey work as an effective corporate teammate with partner Discovery Communications to turn the struggling channel around?

There's another bedrock question: Does a big enough audience exist for the earnest, uplifting fare on Winfrey's OWN, so antithetical to the blowsy charms of "Jersey Shore," ''Keeping Up With the Kardashians" and much else that's popular on cable TV?

As important as control might be to Winfrey, she's also a savvy businesswoman and has been willing to take advice before — and not just from Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil or her other TV health and wealth proteges. Her syndicated talk show's distributor made sure she stayed on track.

"In the past, when she was becoming too 'New Age,' or becoming too distant, which can come with celebrity and wealth, the folks at King World would do a survey" and pass the results to her, said Bill Carroll, an expert in the syndication market for media consulting firm Katz Media.

As a smart broadcaster, Winfrey heard the public "and adjusted to what they were saying," Carroll said.

Winfrey started off slowly with OWN, busy wrapping her talk show's 25-year run last fall with much hoopla. She began exerting more control after leaving daytime, and as part of the executive turnover that began five months after OWN's January 2011 debut to disappointing ratings.

Christina Norman, who was dismissed as CEO in May 2011, had expressed hope that, within its first year, OWN would reach an average of about 400,000 viewers in prime-time among women ages 25-to-54. That would have been a doubling of the prime-time audience in that demo for Discovery Health, the channel OWN replaced.

For the year to date, OWN is averaging 318,000 total viewers in prime-time, a 9 percent increase over the same period last year.

It was philosophy, not numbers, that Winfrey focused on at the channel's launch. She was insistent that OWN would represent her talk show's message of self-empowerment writ large across an entire channel.

"What if I could take every hero who inspired me, every lesson that motivated me, every opportunity that was ever given to me and give it to you," Winfrey said in a promotional spot for OWN that showed her beaming against a computer-generated blue sky dotted by soaring balloons and puffy clouds.

Worthy, but is that entertainment? The high-water mark for OWN so far was the 3.5 million viewers for Winfrey's exclusive interview with Bobbi Kristina Brown, Whitney Houston's daughter, which aired earlier this month. The interview, while sensitively done, spun off the tabloid-tragic end to Houston's checkered life.

(It was also a reminder of the forum that Winfrey's talk show once gave celebrities who wanted to explain themselves. Former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner's agonized, post-Oprah speeches about lewd texts and photos were no substitute for possible absolution by Winfrey.)

For viewer Mamie Kwayie of Chicago, OWN's selling point is programs like "Oprah's Master Class."

"These shows work because they're infused with Ms. Winfrey's core platform for meaningful messages and impactful storytelling," she said in an email.

Such programs strike others as virtuous but dull, among them Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

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