A journal of television and new media

The Return of Rosie: OWN, Celebrity, and the Branding of Basic Cable
Julia Himberg / University of Southern California

The OWN logo
The OWN logo

Last month, OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network) celebrated its one-year anniversary. Over the past twelve months, OWN has produced a series of programs including celebrity reality shows, “personal growth” programs, educational series, documentaries, and repackaged Oprah Winfrey shows. OWN, a joint venture between Discovery Communications and Harpo Productions, replaced the Discovery Health channel after years of declining ratings. OWN, however, has not performed as well as its predecessor, especially among women, who are the network’s key demographic; between October 2011 and October 2010, viewership among women ages 18-34 was down 30%, for women ages 18-49, viewership was down 15%, and among women ages 25-54 (likely, OWN’s largest advertising demographic) viewership was down by 4%. In May, the network fired CEO Christina Norman and Winfrey took over the position. By July, only seven months after its launch, Nielsen reported that OWN’s average primetime audience dropped 37% to 250,000 viewers. Trying to fight the downward trend, parent company Discovery Communications infused the network with an additional $15 million and created cross-channel simulcasts to promote OWN’s programming. Yet, without substantial improvement in the network’s ratings and profits, OWN might be a sign that everything Oprah touches does not turn to gold. More significantly though, OWN poses compelling questions about the current state of the basic cable industry; in today’s television economy, what do OWN’s failings say about basic cable’s reach for niche audiences? What can OWN tell us about contemporary practices of branding and celebrity production? And, how are these practices embedded in the structures of the basic cable marketplace?

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The Rosie Show promotional logo

In the fall of 2011, OWN pinned its hopes on comedian Rosie O’Donnell as well as on an increased screen presence from Winfrey herself. During the 1996-2002 run of O’Donnell’s NBC talk show, she was a ratings giant, often providing fierce competition for The Oprah Winfrey Show (ABC), which aired at the same time in most major markets. According to press reports, Winfrey was eager to bring O’Donnell to the network, hoping it would create buzz and draw O’Donnell’s loyal followers; her talk show’s famously upbeat tone made O’Donnell seem like a good fit for the “feel good” OWN. Winfrey was wary though; over the years, O’Donnell has earned a reputation for being brash and abrasive, and getting into heated arguments off- and on-camera. The Rosie Show, in fact, which premiered on OWN on October 10, 2011 marks O’Donnell’s first return to daytime television since she her public departure from The View in 2007 after a war words with Donald Trump – she called him a “snake-oil salesman” – and a series of contentious debates with conservative cast-mate Elisabeth Hasselbeck.

http://flowtv.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/CLIP-1-Rosie-O_Donnell-vs.-Elisabeth-Hasselbeck-on-The-View.flv

Rosie O’Donnell vs. Elisabeth Hasselbeck on The View (May 23, 2007)

OWN’s investment in O’Donnell as a savior for the network was especially risky because her public persona is dominated by extremes; O’Donnell has been the “Queen of Nice” and the “Queen of Mean.” Her refusal to conform to norms of beauty and decorum has earned her devoted fans. However, those same qualities have made her an easy target for the press and a punching bag for right-wing pundits. Since she publicly came out as lesbian in 2002, the tabloid press has been particularly critical of O’Donnell for being angry, outspoken, political, and overweight. Only months after she came out, The National Enquirer claimed a fundamental link between O’Donnell’s sexuality and her widely publicized anger management issues: “Those close to Rosie say that coming out as a lesbian has transformed the former talk show host and triggered her war against Hollywood…. ‘We’re seeing the real Rosie — and she’s angry.’”1 The next year, when Ellen Degeneres’ talk show premiered, The New York Times called Degeneres the “Un-Rosie,” emphasizing Degeneres’ positive and light style. In contrast, the press has attacked O’Donnell for operating outside the norms of proper female decorum, breaking rules of how to look and what to say. As Kathleen Rowe Karlyn reminds us, though, “expressions of women’s anger are disturbing to women and men alike because they challenge of ideology of heterosexuality that identifies sadism with men and masochism with women.”2 Refusing the conventions of being a woman on TV, O’Donnell has carved out a space for herself as television’s “unruly” lesbian celebrity.3 Through her anger, O’Donnell limits career opportunities and sacrifices airtime, but she has also affected the terms on which she is represented in mainstream media. Crossing cultural boundaries, she offers critiques of heterosexuality, heteronormativity, ideals of beauty and size, and other forms of difference.

Although O’Donnell’s year as a co-host of The View helped the show earn record ratings, The Rosie Show has not been the ratings magnet OWN executives hoped for; while the show debuted with 497,000 viewers, the numbers have fallen steadily, dropping 61%. Marketing analysts have attributed OWN’s overall poor performance to its namesake; OWN’s brand is built on Winfrey’s core mantra, “live your best life,” a call to self-discovery and personal growth. While Winfrey’s brand is instantly recognizable across the globe, OWN’s viewers have complained that the network is “all over the place” with its programming, lacking the consistency that brings audiences back day after day. The Rosie Show, though, works hard to embody the OWN brand, incorporating Winfrey’s ethos through socially progressive themes. On each show, O’Donnell is filled with off-the-cuff remarks about her four adopted children, her weight, her clothes, her lesbianism, and non-conformity more generally. Her humor on the show tends to be in the service of promoting tolerance, progress, and difference. The celebrity interview segments, for example, are rife with guests such as RuPaul, Wanda Sykes, Chaz Bono, and Roseanne Barr, who help her to explore topics like discrimination, bullying, and acceptance.

On January 3, 2012, O’Donnell featured Ben, an effeminate 6th grade boy with dreams of being a costume designer. O’Donnell uses the segment as a platform for granting Ben agency, validating and making public his experiences of being “different.” In her interview with Ben and his mother, O’Donnell reinforces the importance of supporting youth like Ben, pleading for acceptance from ignorant peers. In the course of the segment, the viewer learns that RuPaul is Ben’s role model: “I admire him because he’s not afraid to do anything and if someone’s rude, he just tells them to go away.” In a moment of talk show magic, O’Donnell arranges for RuPaul to surprise Ben on stage. Seated on a couch in front of the studio audience, RuPaul offers Ben words of wisdom and encouragement: “You’re such a brave kid and I just think you’re the bees knees…I am so excited for you because you have so much energy and so much creativity, you’re gonna’ set this world on fire.” O’Donnell has made similar arrangements for other children, including an on-camera meeting between Chaz Bono and an 11-year-old transgender girl named Jazz, both featured in documentaries aired exclusively on OWN. Over and over, O’Donnell’s interviews are infused with progressive language, with leading questions that prompt guests to promote OWN’s multicultural ideology, and with autobiographical tales of her own youth, coming out, and experiences as an openly lesbian celebrity.

http://flowtv.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/CLIP-2-Meet-Ben-The-Rosie-Show.flv

“Meet Ben”

http://flowtv.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/CLIP-3-RuPaul-Surprises-His-Biggest-Fan-The-Rosie-Show.flv

RuPaul surprises Ben on The Rosie Show (January 3, 2012)

OWN marks both Winfrey and O’Donnell’s first forays into cable television. Winfrey turned to basic cable as she watched her broadcast audiences decline; in the last seasons of Winfrey’s top-rated ABC talk show, she averaged less than 6 million viewers, half the numbers from a decade earlier. The press framed Winfrey’s choice to found a cable channel in her name as an answer to the shrinking broadcast audience and simultaneously as an opportunity to “expand Americans’ views of other people in the world.”4 From its beginnings then, OWN was predicated on a return to the early utopian discourse of cable TV. In particular, OWN harkened back to cable’s possibility as an alternative to broadcast, which could empower the viewer by being more interactive, personal, and relevant. The Rosie Show has embodied these ideals by promoting cultural visibility and public dialogue as a remedy for social ills such as sexism, racism, homophobia, and fat-phobia.

Although it’s still early, reflecting on OWN’s first year on the air, it seems that that the network reveals some of the ways that celebrity and branding cultures are reshaping and reconfiguring the basic cable TV landscape. O’Donnell, The Rosie Show, and OWN provide an opportunity to speculate on the intersections of contemporary industrial practices. In particular, the network’s inability to succeed this year suggests less that OWN executives over-estimated the popularity of Winfrey’s ethos and more that they over-estimated how easily her brand would translate from a one-hour broadcast program to a 24-hour a day cable service. Likewise, O’Donnell’s power as a cable TV magnet seems over-blown and misunderstood. Arguably, these miscalculations mean that the shift from broadcast to basic cable is not as straightforward as making the move to narrowcasting. In other words, OWN’s story offers us a look at the increasingly complicated relationship between broadcast and basic cable; clear distinctions between these two types of networks still exist, but they are changing and are harder to pin-point than industry practices would have us believe.

Image Credits:
1. The OWN logo
2. The Rosie Show logo

NOTES

  1. “Rosie’s Revenge!” The National Enquirer, July 2, 2002. []
  2. Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, The Unruly Woman: Gender & The Genres of Laughter (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995) 14. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Patricia Sellers, “Oprah’s Next Act,” CNN Monday, September 30, 2010, http://money.cnn.com/2010/09/29/news/companies/oprah_most_powerful_full.fortune/index.htm (accessed January 4, 2012). []

Comments

  • Sebastian Arboleda said:

    It seems that the problem with OWN has never been the cable channel’s ability to reach audiences. I feel that the buzz around the network before it even went on the air alerted the majority of its demographic to its existence. Oprah herself has even stepped up at the risk of bending ratings procedure and asking viewers, particularly viewers with a Neilson box in their home, to switch to her channel.

    This being the case, the content of the channel needs to be scrutinized if it is to attract viewers. I watched the clips you posted and it seems that Rosie does not encompass the Oprah brand as one would expect. The few times I watched the Oprah Winfrey Show when it was still on the air, it seemed that Oprah acted more as a reporter during her show. She would ask specific questions and allow her guest to reveal his or her story of triumph and/or tragedy. This was the emotional substance that would attract the largely female demographic to her show, from what I could tell. Although the courage displayed by Ben and his mother in the clips you posted do contain this emotional substance, I feel that audiences are sophisticated enough to tell that the message they are receiving is a forced one. In other words, whereas Oprah was more of a progressive yet wide-reaching storyteller by means of her guests, Rosie’s new show is more of a preaching force for special interests she herself has an interest in. While there is nothing wrong with this, it can be understood why viewership is down since this talk show made the already very niche Oprah format even more niche.

  • H. MacDonald said:

    This is a great article about the current state of the OWN Network; the Rosie Show analysis really brings to mind the issue of how dedicated a cable network should be to their brand in order to generate audience loyalty.

    While the OWN network perfectly represents the brand-targeted emergence of cable networks, it really is just another development of a long-established order of business for television. In Joseph Turow’s book, Breaking Up America: Advertising and the new Media World, he writes that once the television companies grew into the conglomerates they are today by vertically integrating in the 80’s/90’s, the strategy shifted from aiming their media at mass audiences, to directly marketing at focused communities. “The aim for the media firms as well as for the marketers was to make the target audience feel part of a tight-knit extended family, attached to the program hosts, other viewers, and sponsors, wherever they went.” (189) In my opinion this statement could not apply more directly to any other cable network. The alleged strength of the Oprah brand was that it would draw her daytime show’s intensely loyal audience to the network, and it seemed like a sure thing at the time. No other network better symbolizes the hopes and dreams companies attribute to branded entertainment – yet in practice, I believe that OWN did not entirely live up to the values it’s targeted audience wanted.

    Ms. Himberg alludes that part of the reason the channel is not a substantial hit with viewers is because of the lack of consistency in it’s programming and truly “all over the place.” This is especially apparent in how the network handled Rollin’ With Zach, a travel show hosted by Zach Anner, a loveable and fun 27-year-old with cerebral palsy. Zach received the opportunity to host his own show when he competed in an online contest sponsored by OWN. Most of Anner’s fan base from the time of the internet competition were tech-savvy young males – arguably the least targeted demographic for OWN. Although Anner was eventually one of the winner’s of the competition (not without some controversy), I don’t believe the show has proven to be a hit for the network. Rollin’ With Zach quietly ended its six episode run, with no news of an ordered second season.

    Whereas OWN recruited Rosie O’Donnell, so that she would attract her built-in fan base to the network, Anner was given a television show with the hope that the same young, internet-savvy, male audience would follow as well. This example, along with the “all over the place” current slate of OWN programming, which ranges from non-fiction mystery shows that might be more at home on Court TV to several reality shows centered on lower-tier celebrities, certainly proves that the same audience that was loyal to Oprah’s celebrated talk show are not being as directly targeted as possible.

    In other words, I don’t believe that the extended family that Turow refers to, is as tight-knit as OWN had projected it would be.

  • DeShaun Thompson said:

    Hola!

    I’m unsure of why OWN isn’t faring well- at least according to Nielsen- with it’s target market. It has Suze Orman and Unfaithful: Stories of Betrayal- a documentary-style series about husbands who are unfaithful. (Someone better call that other network and tell them, “We want Nate Berkus back, pronto!) Also, It’s freaking Oprah! …a media juggernaut and Queen Midas of broadcast TV as we know it. Maybe the explanation is as simple as distribution.

    In anticipation of the premiere for Breakthrough with Tony Robbins, one tweeter commented on the show’s page, “I live in Canada and just called my cable provider and added OWN so I could watch Breakthrough with Tony Robbins. Sadly I found out that it won’t be showing in Canada. I really wish this was showing here!” I guess the Canadians will have to wait for syndication.

    I’m not an avid or routine watcher of OWN, which probably doesn’t matter since I’m a man and therefore not part of the network’s niche demographic. However, I’ve caught an episode of series or two while channel surfing since OWN falls between CNN and RuPaul’s Drag Race. Don’t judge me. :)

    I’m not biased against OWN’s programming or marketing, and the network generally isn’t my first choice when I sit down to watch TV. However, the OWN series that has the biggest draw for me… the one that I’d make the most effort to watch is Oprah’s Master Class. (In fact, I would have posted sooner but I was sucked in by Jane Fonda’s episode.) Why this series? Because it’s most resonant and reminiscent of the primetime Oprah that American audiences revered for her ability humanize celebrity through probing questions or the creation of “safe” space to share intimate testimonies and experiences.

    Though the Winfrey brand- the mantra of “becoming your best self” and the fostered ideal of rugged individualism- was there during her broadcast TV days, maybe melodramatic soap operas leading into programming and sobering nightly newscasts leading out bookended the show and balanced it out. Now, at least for me, OWN seems saturated (maybe over-saturated… at least according to show titles) with the do-it-yourself self-help style of show. It’s like too much salt in one dish. But, if you’re part of that audience then I guess you know that going in, right? For whatever reason it hasn’t caught on… yet.

    And, initially, I wouldn’t peg Rosie O’Donnell- nothing against her, but given her portrayal in/by the media- as the poster girl for that style of programming. However, Julia, I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote: “The Rosie Show has embodied these ideals by promoting cultural visibility and public dialogue as a remedy for social ills such as sexism, racism, homophobia, and fat-phobia.” In fact, while watching the segment on the young man who aspires to become a designer the whole time I felt like I was watching a PSA for tolerance.

    Wow, I didn’t meant to write this much so I’ll wrap it up. In general, while skimming OWN’s site and some of it series, in addition to what I’ve seen from the network on TV, I think that the Oprah Winfrey brand is going through a huge developmental phase as it transitions from a one-hour time slot to 24/7 programming. I think a large contributor to the deficit in numbers is that Oprah isn’t the only face anymore, and the network offers programming that may be in line with the brand, but whose format is unfamiliar to her target audience and fan base. For me, OWN feels kind of random at it’s current state. It’s like what she’s doing isn’t as clear as who she’s doing it for. But it’s Oprah… I’m not worried.

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