TV

Winfrey struggles on her OWN

TV personality and media mogul Oprah Winfrey gets far more viewers for her syndicated show than tune in to her new cable TV network.
TV personality and media mogul Oprah Winfrey gets far more viewers for her syndicated show than tune in to her new cable TV network. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Here's the big problem with Oprah Winfrey's OWN cable network: There's still too much Oprah to go around.

The talk show queen has seen ratings build for her syndicated show as fans continue to line up for the last dose of Winfrey's full-throated magic before the May 25 finale.

But viewership for OWN has headed in the other direction, despite a much-hyped Jan. 1 debut that drew an average of 1 million viewers in its first week.

The week of April 18, OWN drew an average of 127,000 viewers across its broadcast day, with 52,000 viewers among women ages 25 to 54. In prime-time hours during the same week, the average jumped to 216,000, with 78,000 in her core audience of women ages 25 to 54. In comparison, an average 6.3 million watched the syndicated Oprah show each day that week.

My theory: Fans are still lining up for the familiar show they know, not yet ready to spend much time with a cable channel they don't.

Clearly, it's time for Winfrey to reboot OWN.

A little of that starts Sunday, with the 11 p.m. debut of Shania Twain's Why Not?, an unscripted series supposedly detailing the onetime country-pop star's struggle to overcome crippling stage fright and return to performing.

The dramatic backdrop: Twain is also recovering from a painfully public scandal where her producer and husband Robert "Mutt" Lange left her and then revealed he was having an affair with her best friend. (She, naturally, began dating the best friend's now ex-husband. They married Jan. 1.)

Two days after Twain's debut, at 9 p.m. Tuesday, OWN unveils Becoming Chaz, a surprisingly intimate documentary about Chastity Bono's decision to get a sex change and begin living as a man even as her rock star mom (and gay icon) Cher struggled to understand and accept her choices.

After the film, Rosie O'Donnell, whose OWN talk show debuts this fall, will host a discussion of the issues at 10:30 p.m.

As someone who has seen most of the shows already, I can say there's lot of hit and miss in OWN; something we're not used to seeing from the Queen of All Media.OWN'S HITS AND MISSES

Here's a little blueprint for what's working and not:

Working

Becoming Chaz: This documentary has two things you rarely see in so-called reality TV: an unsparing look at the subject's worst moments, and an intimacy that leaves few corners of the experience unexplored. More shows like this will make OWN a destination for insightful, honest programming about gender, race and sex.

Oprah's tweets: Winfrey and her top staffers have tried to build interest in the network's best-performing show, Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes, by posting messages on Twitter throughout the show. For fans who want nothing more than to bask in her presence, this is the next best thing to hanging with O during a screening.

NOT working

The Judds and Shania Twain: Nobody feels sorry for multimillionaire celebrities stuck on the crazy train. Watching clips of Twain singing before thousands of fans, only to freak out rehearsing in an empty hall, just makes you wonder whether she's a bit too pampered and precious.

Ditto with Kentucky natives Naomi and Wynonna Judd, whose off-the-hook neuroses could fill a couple of doctoral dissertations (their unscripted show about trying to organize a reunion tour airs at 10 p.m. Sundays). Both shows wear out their welcomes quickly, leaving you exasperated with the subjects instead of sympathetic.

OWN's new stars: None of the stars Winfrey developed in her show's heyday have new series on the channel. So figures like organizational expert Peter Walsh, sex therapist Laura Berman, cook Cristina Ferrare and ever-present pal Gayle King aren't getting traction. Time to brainstorm some way to shoehorn new appearances by Dr. Phil, Suze Orman and Dr. Oz before fans lose patience.

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