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Business Comment

Stephen Foley: Oprah, Queen of Daytime, finds her crown is slipping with this OWN goal


US Outlook The naysayers might have got it right when they said Oprah Winfrey couldn't spin her brand of hopey-changey lifestyle television into a whole cable channel. She may have been Queen of Daytime TV, they said, but what about prime time? What about late night? When the Oprah Winfrey Network launched last January into the crowded line-up of female-focused channels, industry veterans predicted it would end the way of all previous attempts to build a channel around a single personality – in failure.

For the record, I am not ready to count Oprah out yet, but, oh dear, things are looking very ropey. With the exception of its founder's once-a-week talk show, Oprah's Next Chapter, OWN's viewing figures have been dismal.

In the past week she has had to cancel another flagship programme, a talk show by her pal Rosie O'Donnell, and lay off 20 per cent of OWN's staff.

Wall Street is pencilling losses of $142m (£90m) for the channel this year and Discovery Communications, which owns half, may have to write down tens of millions of dollars ofits investment.

On Discovery's last investor conference call, analysts began asking how easy it would be to terminate the joint venture with Oprah.

It is certainly true that OWN underestimated the difficulty in starting a lifestyle channel from scratch, and overestimated the lure of Oprah's name to production companies who continue to pitch their best ideas to more-established channels.

But Oprah herself has made some terrible choices, papering the schedule with earnest programmes about people finding themselves (from Sarah Ferguson on down) and dealing with infidelity and other personal issues. The drama, the conflict and the narrative drive of the best in reality TV is too often missing from these insipid self-improvement shows.

Self-improvement is, of course, the Oprah brand in a nutshell, and OWN has been set up in such a way that every programme choice needs to be measured against that brand, and approved by the woman herself.

What the network needs, and urgently, is more diversity and edgier content.

Oprah appears to have set up a terrible conflict of interest. The shows that best support her existing brand are going to kill her fledgling channel. How willing is she to evolve? Is she going to go all-in? It is time for the Queen of Daytime TV to decide if she is a brand or if she is a network executive.