Oprah Winfrey has returned to television, but I don’t think she returned in the way she wanted.

After all, when she retired from her daily talk show to focus on new cable network OWN, it wasn’t because she wanted to revise her already insanely successful TV career on a network that gets demonstrably fewer views and media attention.

With “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” for decades, she was able to reach and influence millions because her syndicated program was everywhere, airing on major networks available in nearly every American household that has a TV set.  OWN was about something new. Which is probably why she made her new show an interview show and declared it “The Next Chapter.”

But “The Next Chapter” isn’t appearing from the same position of strength and influence the first chapter ended on. While the debut did well for the network, because it’s cable and not syndication, the numbers paled in comparison to her original show. It’s a sign that Winfrey is adapting to a new environment – trying to figure out the magical mix that makes a network.

OWN originally was branded as a sort of “self-help” network, but the shows – unlike the spin-offs she spearheaded for Dr. Phil and Rachel Ray – floundered. Even bringing Rosie O’Donnell back, once her competition in the 1990s, did little to nothing to generate the kind of hype and buzz Oprah was used to. Largely because O’Donnell’s image had changed dramatically since her days of crushing on Tom Cruise while lending her name to her own magazine. No one remembered the fun, good natured host of yore, but the conspiracy theory spouting former “The View” host who got in lengthy fights with a bloviating Donald Trump.

I think a lot of the disappointment in OWN’s programming isn’t so much that people like or dislike self-help TV or like or dislike O’Donnell or wanted to see more or less Oprah. The problem is – Oprah Winfrey is magic to her viewing public and when she said she was creating a network with her name on it that’s what people expected – they expected her.

Her ideas. Her influence. Her interests, but reborn through a variety of network programming.

Magic is more than trotting out future Dr. Oz clones and upbeat but familiar feeling reality shows when your competition is hysterical theatrics of “Bad Girls Club” and “Dance Moms.”

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  • Kim J.

    Interesting article and comments. I do think she could have been a bit more aggressive in giving the network more of an “Oprah” flavor upfront. As the writer of the article states, we know what kind of fiction she likes, so it’s easy to imagine Oprah working with a good writer to produce a few good shows. I won’t touch her relationship/mentorship of Tyler Perry.

    I’m not sure about OWN being a premium channel…I don’t even know if I get it on Time Warner in NYC, however, where the channel sits makes me wonder if Winfrey’s semi-ownership of Oxygen and possibly the Discovery Channel have anything to do with channel placement and programming. (I’m not sure what her interests are in Discovery, but I thought they turned the Discovery Health channel into OWN. I used to write about cable, but it’s been years.) Also, remember her ties to the Discovery Channel during the release of the Planet Earth series.
    So, from a financial perspective, she might be legally obliged to do (or not do) certain things as it pertains to OWN’s competitiveness with Oxygen or Discovery. (including putting OWN on a premium or basic tier.) Remember this is the woman that puts her picture on every magazine cover, every month, as a way to sell magazines. She’s not stupid obviously, so I’m sure she can handle a cable network.

    If I were Oxygen, I wouldn’t want OWN coming up and stealing the thunder it took me years to acquire. Since I’m pretty sure Winfrey owns a minority stake at Oxygen, there had to be some “you can’t bastardize your other investment” talk when setting up OWN. Personally, I would have just brought out Oxygen and perhaps re-branded it…a little cleaner that way. She has the cash, as I don’t think the bulk of her wealth is tied up a ton of equity minus the network investments and Harpo. (like Steve Jobs with Pixar…) Folks who watch Oxygen would continue to do so, it’s just another O word. Plus, wasn’t a big fuss made over Winfrey’s part ownership in Oxygen when the network first launched?

    So if Winfrey has to sell her interest in Oxygen, that might take a while, considering the market/economy sucks and who’s really interested in buying part of a cable channel these days? Plus, Oxygen is probably doing well, she might not want to sell her interest. She’s a billionaire for a reason…

    Speaking of which, I’ll suggest that black and white women of all classes watched Oprah on TV, but something tells me that the white, upper middle class/upper class women were the ones to BUY her magazine and any other books or product she was hawking. That’s why she’s a billionaire. (Along with owning her own show and the syndication rights.)

  • pink

    Kim: I agree with your LAST paragraph wholeheartedly

  • pink

    I hope Oprah hasn’t lost her midas touch…..but who knows. Fact is it’s very unusual for a show to be popular for 20 to 25 years like Oprah’s original show was. Oprah’s show was definitelly an exception. I do agree with Oprah’s recent comment that it generally takes a show a couple of years to get grounded, find their footing, and succeed. Thing is that in this day and time I don’t know if she will have the luxury of it taking that long. In this age of instant gratification I don’t know if people and advertisers will wait that long.

  • Denise

    Ms. Belton- I loved ALL of your ideas regarding OWN. Wouldn’t it be nice if somehow Ms. Winfrey could read this article? I liked a few of the shows from last year, but in all honesty, I haven’t been drawn this year. Not because I “hate” the channel, but, worse, because I forget about it. YIKES! That is so not good…she has such a wonderful platform and opportunity to create fresh programs and ideas, and tap into some amazing talent. [A hard hitting news show with Lisa Ling, TJ Holmes, and Soledad O’Brien would have been great.]

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