“Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another steppingstone to greatness.” – Oprah Winfrey
Five years ago, Oprah Winfrey hung up her crown as the greatest daytime host ever to assume the full-time CEO role of her then fledgling network. The Oprah Winfrey Network better known as OWN, a 50-50 partnership between Harpo Productions and Discovery Communications, was suppose to allow Oprah’s rabid fan base to transition from just a few hours of her a day to twenty four hours of programming laid out by the queen of television. You know when they say be careful of what you ask for? This became the question Ms. Winfrey had to be asking herself in the first few years of the new network. Filling twenty four hours of programming versus a few hours proved to be as expected quite a mountainous task. There was shakeup at the network not even one year into its debut as Discovery Communications flexed its muscle in the partnership influencing some changes in leadership. It has helped, but is OWN missing a chance to be a transformative platform for women that can also be a financial juggernaut?
Filling twenty four hours of quality programming for women actually should not be that complicated. Unfortunately, OWN has reduced women’s interest to a version of Lifetime “light”, Tyler Perry shows, Dr. Phil episodes, and now that Oprah has a ten percent ownership in Weight Watchers International expect viewers to get a full barrage of subtle (or not) hints at body shaming. This new formula has certainly paid off for the network with the most successful quarter in the network’s history coming in the first quarter of 2015. Maybe the expectation that OWN could be much more than it is is unrealistic, but this unimaginative content is not reflective of the myriad of interest that anyone who is a woman or knows a woman has. And it is that very lack of imagination that will keep OWN as a marginal television station and investment for Discovery Communications who may eventually decide to jettison the partnership and financially costing Ms. Winfrey dearly. So what should be done?
The most profitable live television events right now that can not be DVR’d is sports programming, which is why media companies are paying billions to have the licensing rights to the NFL and other live television events in the moment. Sports is an acute missing piece of the OWN programming puzzle, especially when it comes to the NFL where women are the fastest growing demographic fan base. Now, nobody needs to kid themselves that OWN, Discovery, or Ms. Winfrey personally can afford to buy licensing rights to prime NFL games. Disney, a company ten times the size of Discovery Communications and owner of ESPN, pays the NFL almost $2 billion annually just to show NFL games. That being said, where is the “Sportscenter” for women on OWN? Gone are the days where women just sat next to their boyfriend or husband and watched the game. Today, women are as knowledgeable if not more about the game and those who are not are interested in knowing more. A NFL show hosted by women for women could easily take up one or two hours everyday on the network. There are a plethora of women football gurus on social media with devout followings like Lizz Robbins (Lizzs_Lockeroom) with almost 30 000 followers. She tweets about everything from the NFL, NBA, MLB, and even NHL covering a plethora of women demographics that advertisers would love. Never mind it may make the NFL come advertising with OWN instead of the other way around. Secondly, live women’s sporting events often are given the second hand treatment by both men (and women) sporting fans. The WNBA needs more exposure and OWN could offer the league prime time spots. Every professional sport women participate in like the LPGA and WTA could benefit from time on OWN and OWN could benefit from their content. Now, instead of fathers and sons rooting on their favorite athlete it could be mothers and daughters cheering on Serena Williams or Skylar Diggins. You know ESPN’s 30 for 30? What about producing one of those on “Babe” Zaharias, the multi-sport start of the early twentieth century that showed many that women loved to get down and dirty and compete just like her male counterparts. Again, a women-centric view that speaks to not only women’s interest, but highlights women’s participation that is so often overlooked in mainstream media.
Beyond sports, there is a treasure trove of other possibilities. A show on technology that features Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, and Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, could highlight news on the latest in women’s work and innovation in the field. A political show with both liberal and conservative views featuring the recently released MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry and Christina Sommers, respectively. Apart or together they would certainly generate fireworks, ratings, and revenue with both having very strong social media followings. And given women’s increased economic importance to both their household and the nation, a myriad of shows such as financial and investment news featuring Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments in Chicago, or a complete show dedicated to women entrepreneurs who are now responsible for 3 out of every 5 new businesses (see above) started in the United States. The Federal Reserve, arguably the world’s most powerful bank, is led by a woman. The next president of the United States of America maybe a woman. Countless countries around the world are already headed by women. Again, the possibilities for meaningful, substantive, and profitable content are endless because women’s interest are as vast as the land and sea.
It is hard to know whether OWN is actually being held back by its relationship with Discovery Communications, which may have a formula it believes works for women’s programming. The problem is that programming model is outdated. Gone are the days where the belief was that women only want to watch soap operas and eat chocolate. There is an opportunity for OWN to be a trailblazer in reflecting the new reality and profit handsomely from doing so. Women’s importance is no longer behind closed doors, but in the forefront of every aspect of our society today. It is time that mediums, especially ones that are visual and have the ability to impact future generations of girls reflect the new world. The leadership at OWN must realize that being at the vanguard of this will be what ensures its success (and profitability) and not doing so will ultimately doom it to the dustbin. After all, this is business.