Executives at OWN think they may have found a way to salvage Oprah Winfrey's struggling network: by catering more to an African-American audience. That may help ratings, but it would mean a dramatic shift, and one that could put the channel at odds with Winfrey's own brand.
According to OWN president Erik Logan and Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav, the silver lining in an otherwise bleak performance record for the network since its launch last January is that it's performing particularly well among its African-American audience members—especially with a reality show called Welcome to Sweetie Pies that premiered in October.
“Anytime you have a program that pops like Sweetie Pies did, you start looking at what drove it,” Logan told Adweek. “And we saw that the African-American audience really had a connection with that show. . . . We’re going to look at ways to nurture and grow that.”
Since Welcome to Sweetie Pies premiered, OWN has enjoyed an average prime-time viewership of around 216,000 people. Sweetie Pies has seen an average audience of around 418,000, making it the highest rated show on the network by far in that period.
According to Logan, OWN executives will be taking the success of Sweetie Pies in that market into consideration when making future programming decisions, as well as trying to pitch OWN’s success with African Americans to new advertisers. “We now have a new opportunity to tell the story to different advertisers that didn’t think about buying OWN if you’re trying to market your clients in an African-American marketplace,” Logan said. “Our ad sales team now has the ability to open up those conversations.”
Discovery Communications launched OWN last January to much fanfare, but the network has been flagging since. In the face of dismal ratings, OWN ousted CEO Christina Norman, a veteran of MTV, in May, and installed Winfrey in her place in July. Discovery has also pumped millions into the network—around $254 million as of September—using that money to fund big-budget shows like Oprah's Next Chapter and Rosie O'Donnell's The Rosie Show.
If indeed OWN does begin programming around the relative success of Sweetie Pies and catering to the African-American audience more specifically, it would be a dramatic departure from the formula for Winfrey's success, which she built with a wide, diverse fan base.
“Oprah is a brand that goes far beyond the African-American market” said Tuna Amobi, senior media and entertainment analyst at Standard & Poor's U.S. Equity Research Services. “I don’t know that it would be a good thing for OWN to so narrowly define its target.” As he pointed out, the biggest potential pitfall for OWN would be that its advertising base could shrink. “The advertisers they would attract are different,” he said. “It will be a narrower base.”
OWN's Logan insists the network is not embarking on a large-scale refocusing. “We’re not going to sell out and just chase one demographic or segment," he said. “We’re going to nurture the success we had with Sweetie Pies. . . . [But] it is our job to strike a balance. The Oprah brand is not niche. The Oprah brand is very broad. How we translate that to the screen is the challenge we have.”