April 17, 2024

Media Decoder: Oprah Winfrey Network Chief Is Out

OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network Christina Norman, left, with Oprah Winfrey and David Zaslav, the chief executive of Discovery Communications, celebrating the start of OWN on Jan. 1, 2011. Ms. Norman is exiting the channel.

4:06 p.m. | Updated | In an admission of dissatisfaction with the ratings for the four-month-old OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, the head of that channel, Christina Norman, has been dismissed, the channel said Friday.

Effective immediately, Peter Liguori, the chief operating officer for Discovery Communications, will take over the channel on an interim basis, through the rest of the year, if not longer.

Discovery and Ms. Winfrey jointly own and operate OWN. The decision to dismiss Ms. Norman was made by the board that oversees OWN in the last few weeks, according to a person with direct knowledge of the decision.

The shake-up comes amid disappointment at Discovery and at OWN about low ratings for most of its programming. On a total day basis, OWN is barely outperforming the channel it replaced, Discovery Health, despite hundreds of million of dollars of investment.

David Zaslav, the chief executive of Discovery Communications, acknowledged last week that the channel has had a “slower start” than expected.

In its first four months, OWN attracted 148,000 viewers at any given time, according to The Nielsen Company, only 7,000 more than Discovery Health did in the same time period last year. In the prime-time hours, OWN averaged 297,000 viewers, 44,000 more than Discovery Health.

In an e-mail message to the staff at OWN on Friday, Ms. Winfrey said that Ms. Norman’s “hard work, passion and leadership were instrumental in getting OWN on the air,” but added, “Given all that we have to do, the OWN Board felt it was necessary that we have a different kind of leadership in place for the next phase of OWN’s growth.”

Before becoming the Discovery chief operating officer in 2009, Mr. Liguori was the president of entertainment for the Fox Broadcasting Company.

Mr. Liguori said in an interview Friday afternoon that this was “a natural transformational moment” for OWN.

He said he would apply the lessons of the last four months to new programming. One lesson, he said, has been that straightforward how-to shows and darker subject matter don’t work as well as shows that are more clearly entertaining. “I think you’re going to see more joy on the network,” he said.

“Every single one of Oprah’s shows should be purposeful,” he emphasized. “But the price of entry for that purpose — that show’s intent, its message, its takeaway — is that you are entertained.”

Asked to elaborate, he said, “It’s going to be compelling characters, storytelling with stakes, and then at the end of the show, you realize you have learned either some moral or practical lesson.”

Ms. Norman did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. She was the second chief executive of OWN, having taken over in January 2009 while the channel was trying — and at times struggling — to start up.

While Ms. Winfrey provided the live-your-best-life vision for the channel, it was Ms. Norman, a former president of MTV, who executed on that vision. She said in a prepared statement Friday, “As I move on to my next challenge, I am confident the strong foundation we have built will position the network to achieve great things.”

OWN is being closely watched in the television industry because it bears Oprah’s imprimatur and because steering viewers to a new channel is almost always a struggle. Adding to that struggle, Ms. Winfrey is not regularly appearing on the channel yet because she is busy winding down her syndicated talk show, “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” The final episode of the talk show will be shown on May 25.

Citing the end date, Ms. Winfrey wrote in her e-mail message, “I will soon be able to turn my full energies to working with you all.” She added, “I remain confident that the vision/mission that we established for OWN will be achieved — and we will do it together — as a team.”

OWN executives had planned to start Ms. Winfrey’s next show, called “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” sometime in the fall. But Mr. Liguori said Friday that the start date would now be January 2012. Ms. Winfrey will be taking a vacation after her syndicated show ends, he said, and then turning her attention to “Next Chapter.”

“Big ideas, especially one from Oprah, shouldn’t be microwaved, they should be slow-baked,” he said.

Despite the ratings shortfalls, OWN is expected to be profitable in its first year. Mr. Zaslav reiterated last week that Discovery was “fully committed to the brand.”

“As we said in the beginning, it’s a long-term play building a channel,” he said.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=c157971b3a72516b072a5cd186da1ded

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