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Oprah's rolling up her sleeves - and hoping for an ace

Oprah Winfrey and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith at Tyler's lakefront home in Lake Sunapee, N.H.

George Burns / AP

It's hard to believe that 2011 would end with Oprah Winfrey as an underdog, but that's exactly where the queen of television has found herself, fighting to turn her fledging cable channel around. And she's doing it the only way she knows how: by putting herself in the spotlight with the Jan. 1 launch of a new series, Oprah's Next Chapter, on OWN, the Opera Winfrey Network.

While she'll be back on the air, she's stuck to her guns about her desire to "get out of the chair" and leave a studio audience behind. The debut episode of Oprah's Next Chapter takes her to the New Hampshire home of Steven Tyler. Future instalments have her visiting pastor Joel Osteen's Houston church and travelling to Haiti with Sean Penn. The show's premise – Dream It. See It. Share it. Achieve It. And Repeat – taps into the galvanizing grace that is at the heart of Oprah's appeal.

Sadly, it's taken Winfrey a year to fully embrace her current dream. Last January, she was on top of the world, basking in the launch of OWN and revelling in planning the final five months of The Oprah Winfrey Show. While her last show, watched by 13.3 million people when it aired on May 25, lived up to the hype, it's been a year of dashed expectations at OWN, whose average daily viewership of 136,000 is not just minuscule, but 8 per cent less than that of the network it replaced, Discovery Health.

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The so-called Oprah Effect has been so potent for so long that no one – including Winfrey – believed it wouldn't be enough to transform a secondary cable channel at the far end of the dial into a ratings powerhouse. A little Oprah, it turns out, isn't enough to win over viewers, cable providers or advertisers.

"If you just want your name on a channel and you want to look at a pretty logo, get yourself some stationery and call it a day!" That isn't some disappointed industry analyst talking, but rather Oprah herself, just before OWN went on the air. She's since taken her own lesson to heart and rolled up her sleeves, something, she has said, ego never does.

In keeping with Colin Powell's Pottery Barn theory, while Oprah may not have broken her cable channel all by herself, she now owns its recovery. Top executives from the launch are gone, replaced with key people from Winfrey's production company, Harpo (her first name spelled backward). In July, she became the channel's CEO and chief creative officer, in addition to its chairman. "It's 10 times harder than doing my daily show," she wrote fans on Facebook.

But she also posted this inspirational quote from Anne Wilson Schaef on her wall: "What we perceive as a failure may simply be our inner being's way of telling us that we are ready to move to a new level of growth."

Oprah doesn't back away from her mistakes; she embraces them. And even though she's worth a reported $2.7-billion and is on a first-name basis with every celebrity in the world, her brand's greatest asset is how vulnerable and marvellously human she remains. In the January, 2011, issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, she said that launching her own network was the first thing that truly scared her. But she decided to push through the fear, telling herself, "God is not going to give this opportunity and just leave me alone – why would I be put in this position, just to fail?" With the start of Oprah's Next Chapter, it looks like she's finally listening to her own best advice.

OWN by the Nielsen numbers:

6.7 million

Average daily viewership of The Oprah Winfrey Show in November, 2009, when Winfrey announced she would be ending her syndicated talk show in 2011.

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13.3 million

Number of people who watched the final episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show on May 25, 2011.

1.2 million

Number of people who watched Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes when it debuted along with OWN Network, on Jan. 1, 2011. Two weeks later, only 557,000 viewers were tuning in.


Number of people who watched the Oct. 10, 2011, debut episode of Oprah's Lifeclass, in which she recycles old highlight clips with a self-help lesson plan.

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Number of people who watched the Oct. 10, 2011, debut episode of The Rosie Show hosted by Rosie O'Donnell. (One month later, average daily viewership would dip to 244,000.)


Number of people who watched the debut of the reality series Why Not? With Shania Twain, OWN's top-rated episode of 2011.


Average daily prime-time viewership of OWN from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, 2011. (The cable channel it replaced, Discovery Health, had averaged 250,000 viewers in the same time period in 2010.)

OWN: A timeline

Average daily prime-time viewership of OWN from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, 2011. (The cable channel it replaced, Discovery Health, had averaged 250,000 viewers in the same tim

May 14, 1992: After complaining about the state of trash TV, Oprah's solution is to own her own network. She thinks of the letters OWN: "I'm always looking for signs, signals, and so I wrote that down in my journal that night."

Jan. 15, 2008: Winfrey and Discovery Communications announce that they will launch OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network in 2009.

Nov. 20, 2009: Oprah announces to shocked fans that the upcoming 25th season of The Oprah Winfrey Show will be its last.

Jan. 1, 2011: After a series of delays, OWN goes on the air. Oprah, meanwhile, focuses on the final five months of her talk show.

April 30, 2011: OWN averages 297,000 daily prime-time viewers in its first quarter. "The main problem is that Oprah is not on OWN," RBC Capital Markets analyst David Bank told The Hollywood Reporter. "They need her, and I think she will really have to step up to make it work – and to preserve her reputation and credibility."

May 6, 2011: Christina Norman, OWN's CEO, is ousted, following the earlier exits of the channel's original programming chief, general manager, digital chief, and chief marketing officer. "I will soon be able to turn my full energies to working with you all," said Winfrey in an e-mail to staff.

May 25, 2011: Oprah says a tearful goodbye to The Oprah Winfrey Show.

July, 2011: Oprah becomes OWN's chief creative officer. "I will put my brand and my future on the line because I know this one team – OWN/Harpo – is the boat I want to be in," she said in an e-mail to staff.

Fall, 2011: The weakening of the so-called Oprah Effect spreads to other platforms. In September, single-copy sales of O, The Oprah Magazine decline by 256,000 from a year earlier, while ad pages fall by 19 per cent. The number of unique visitors to drops 18 per cent compared to October, 2010.

October, 2011: The Rosie Show and Oprah's Lifeclass debut to disappointing ratings. A new reality series, Welcome to Sweetie Pie's, featuring a former backup singer of Ike and Tina Turner and her St. Louis soul-food restaurants, averages 418,000 weekly viewers; its strong appeal among African-American viewers encourages network executives. "It doesn't mean we're going to turn into the Roots channel," cautioned Oprah.

Jan. 1, 2012: Originally scheduled to launch this fall, Oprah's Next Chapter, Winfrey's first completely original contribution to OWN, will debut on the network's first anniversary. "I don't worry about failure," she says. "I worry about, 'Did I do all that I could do?' "e period in 2010.)

Up next on OWN:

A Controversial 'Get': Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant Penn State football coach charged with sexually assaulting eight boys is angling to plead his case as Oprah's first high-profile interview in 2012. Winfrey told an audience of cable operators in June that O.J. Simpson and Susan Smith, in prison for the 1995 murder of her two sons, are at the top of her most-wanted list.

Grand Slam: Louder Than a Bomb, a documentary about four Chicago high-school students as they prepare to compete in the world's largest youth slam poetry contest, premieres on Jan. 5.

Going Pig: Gastown Gamble, a reality series about a couple attempting to resurrect Save-On-Meats (and its neon pig) in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, debuts on Jan. 18.

Neighbourhood Watch: Million Dollar Neighbourhood - Can 100 families in Aldergrove, B.C., raise their collective net worth by $1-million in 10 weeks? Tune in on Jan. 22 for the first episode of this series.

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About the Author

Shelley Youngblut is the Western Editor of The Globe and Mail (and the mother of identical twins). The former editor of Calgary’s award-winning Swerve magazine, she is a veteran of ESPN the Magazine, and has commented on pop culture on ABC, CTV and CBC Radio. More

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