Oprah Moves to Cable – And Irrelevance



To some, cable represents reinvention. It also implies that you’re just always available. But too often, omnipresence leads to irrelevance. It happened to baseball, as the game used to produce fairly high ratings while it was still in the “Game of the Week” era, before you could pay for packages that would let you see every Anaheim Angels game of the season if you wanted them.

The irony is that in order to risk insignificance of this magnitude, you’d need to be pretty darn omnipresent (as if there were levels for such a thing). Not necessarily due to overexposure, but to availability. How often do you watch those “complete season” DVD collection of shows that you used to love? They’re always there, but so is something new.

The latest victim of this condition might be the biggest name of all: Oprah Winfrey.

If baseball was always our National Pastime, Oprah was our National Girlfriend.

While headlining her own syndicated “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, Oprah was unstoppable. Her name became synonymous with quality; she routinely gave away audiencefuls of cars, exotic trips, and other sundry expenditures that she found she couldn’t live without – and those brands benefitted from the “Oprah Seal of Approval” in turn.

But since last January she’s on cable, on her OWN. The Oprah Winfrey Network, that is. And she’s hardly been heard from since.

We’ve gone from “OPRAH’S ON!” during “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to “well, let’s see – there’s sharks, housewives, a remodeling show, Oprah’s on, there’s some ghost hunters, Snooki…”

That is, if Oprah’s even on.

Viewers might have anticipated their same dear Oprah back – on her couch, ready to discuss the same heartache and redemption stories that she’d shared so many times, only from basically a new set. And now, on cable, Oprah would probably be there for them, always.

Instead, Oprah’s ubiquitous network features “Oprah style” programming (mostly “Dr. Phil” and a lot of Lifetime-type “women overcoming adversity” specials) rather than a 24/7 Oprah telethon. The ratings reflect that, as most times OWN struggles to break through Nielsen’s reporting minimums.

Oprah probably left her show because it was such a success. The person-based “Oprah Winfrey Show” would deliver demo ratings that could rival primetime shows – fives, sixes, sevens in many local markets, during daytime hours when ratings just weren’t that high. It was easily the highest rated program in the talk show genre.

She may well have continued that success for quite some time. But after a while, it gets tiring. And success doesn’t last forever. So Oprah took on a new challenge. She became a brand.

But the Oprah brand isn’t what made Oprah the person such a ratings success.

Part of it can be explained by clearance. The network is only available in about 67% of TV homes, so about a third of the country doesn’t have access to OWN. When she ran in syndication, she was in about 95% of TV homes.

But this is probably a more appropriate causative effect for the similar plunge from the national spotlight for Howard Stern, whose ill-fated jump from over-the-air radio to subscription satellite radio may have given him plenty of dollars, but lost him most of his audience. Stern’s hubris was that he was bigger than the medium, and his followers would gladly begin to pay a fee for his presence. He was satellite radio’s first major star, and they expected fans to sign up in droves. His show wasn’t the genre-builder they thought, so he’s out to rebuild his “King of All Media” standing, signing to be a judge on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent”.

Oprah didn’t have that big of a barrier to overcome. Most homes already have cable or some sort of subscription service. She didn’t have to be the first big free agent of a new subscription media, which is essentially what Stern was for satellite radio. Oprah’s battle was simply with change.

Like Martha Stewart and Conan O’Brien before her, Oprah has been finding that a built-in audience doesn’t make the leap to cable so easily.

For the most part, Oprah would be getting up off the couch and onto a larger stage. This wasn’t about remaining on a national stage for an hour a day, five days a week. She was poised to become bigger than Oprah, the person. She would be Oprah, the Network, capable of reaching millions of people with her patented Oprah Winfrey touch, essentially 24/7. This would be an evolution in Oprah-hood.

She even had a huge going-away party. And just like that, in May 2011, the “Oprah Winfrey Show” was gone.

But unfortunately for the Oprah brand, so were the viewers. There’s a hip new girlfriend that they’ve been seeing lately. She isn’t quite delivering the ratings that the old “Oprah Winfrey Show” did, but in January, “Ellen” pulled in ratings like a 2.5 and 3.2 for W50+, while Oprah’s ratings on OWN average at around a 0.4. That is, when the ratings manage to get above the Nielsen minimum, which was far more common than not.

In fact, on Sunday night, Oprah herself Tweeted a plea for viewers to tune in to that night’s primetime show called “Oprah’s Next Chapter” - “especially if u have a Neilsen [sic] box” . But by calling out Nielsen households, Oprah broke a Nielsen guideline about influencing viewership measurement. In response, the New York Times reports that Nielsen plans to attach an asterisk to the rating for the night, citing a “possible biasing effect”. The irony is that Oprah probably would love the asterisk, because that would mean that the show topped the minimum rating to even EARN an asterisk.

As even the Queen of All Media has found out, leaving the free broadcast television space means leaving behind those millions that you hoped to reach. Because in becoming a cable network, you’ve stopped being a person we have a relationship with – you’ve become just another vertical hoping for my attention. And we just don’t have time for all that noise.

Now if you’ll excuse us, Ellen’s on!

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