NEW YORK — Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Lance Armstrong is more than an illustration of a hero athlete tumbling from the heights. It’s also a pivotal moment for a famous media figure trying to climb the ladder back up.
Winfrey’s OWN network is showing signs of life after a rocky start, and the Armstrong interview offered a chance for many more viewers to check it out. The former Tour de France cyclist admitted to cheating with performance enhancing drugs throughout his career during the first half of the interview Thursday night.
That program was seen by a total of 4.3 million viewers in Thursday’s back-to-back airings, OWN said Friday. But it drew only 3.2 million viewers in its first airing, an audience that fell short of OWN’s most-viewed telecast: an interview Winfrey conducted with the Whitney Houston family last March following the singer’s death the previous month.
The second half of the Armstrong interview is to air Friday night.
The interview “showcases the No. 1 asset this network has over everybody else — and that’s Oprah Winfrey,” said Erik Logan, co-president of the network with Sheri Solata. It also showcased about everything else; OWN relentlessly advertised its programming on just about every commercial break.
Winfrey, who hosts “Oprah’s Master Class,” “Oprah’s Life Class” and a weekly interview show on OWN, attended a real-life television management class over the past three years. The network launch at the dawn of 2011 came during the last season of Winfrey’s popular syndicated show, and that proved to be a major strategic error.
The daily talk show gave Winfrey’s fans their Oprah jolt, and they had little reason to watch the Oprah Winfrey Network. Winfrey wasn’t much of a presence there, anyway. She was concentrating on making sure her syndicated show went out with a flourish.
OWN flailed for direction with little-noticed celebrity reality shows featuring the Judds and Ryan and Tatum O’Neal. A Rosie O’Donnell talk show was an expensive flop.
Discovery Communications, which sunk a reported $250 million into OWN, told Winfrey she needed to be more involved with OWN, on and off screen. In July 2011, she became CEO as well as chairwoman of OWN, replacing Christina Norman.
“The initial expectations for this network turned out to be unrealistic,” said Brad Adgate, an analyst for Horizon Media. “Oprah wasn’t on camera. The shows weren’t all that good. The network got raked over the coals. People thought the network would be doing a million viewers (on average) and it’s doing a third of that.”
The Discovery networks save money by sharing services, yet OWN had set up its own fiefdom. That ended. Discovery brought in its executives to take over legal and business affairs, and OWN laid off one-fifth of its staff last March. To the outside world it looked like a sinking ship, while to Discovery the ship was being righted.
“We were always a lot more confident internally than it looked externally,” said David Leavy, chief communications officer for Discovery.
Like all cable networks, OWN has a dual revenue stream with advertising income as well as payments from cable and satellite operators to carry it on their systems. In its early days, OWN was operating on fees negotiated for its predecessor network, Discovery Health. Now much larger fees negotiated specifically for OWN are kicking in, many of them at the first of this year. Discovery says OWN will turn profitable this year.
A network still needs viewers to sustain itself, and there are some signs of life there, too. OWN’s prime-time audience averaged 310,000 in 2012, up 30 percent from 2011, the Nielsen company said. Isolate the last three months of each year and the increase is 61 percent, even more among the target of middle-aged women.
OWN is carving out a small niche where it hadn’t expected.
The Saturday night lineup of “Welcome to Sweety Pie’s,” about former Ike and Tina Turner backup singer Robbie Montgomery’s soul food restaurant that she operates with her family, and “Iyanla: Fix My Life,” an advice show with inspirational speaker Iyanla Vanzant, represent the most successful non-Oprah shows. Another new program, “Six Little McGhees, which follows the life of an Ohio couple with sextuplets, is also on the Saturday lineup.
The shows have drawn an audience of African-American women put off by more youth-focused programming on networks like BET. OWN’s audience is roughly one-third black.
OWN recently reached a deal to develop scripted programming with Tyler Perry, the creative force behind movies like “Madea’s Family Reunion” and the TBS series “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.”
Winfrey was known for attracting stars and confessions on her syndicated show — remember Tom Cruise’s couch jump? And even before landing the Armstrong interview, Winfrey has delivered the goods as an interviewer on her Sunday night show, “Oprah’s Next Chapter.”
Her talk with David Letterman that aired earlier this month was one of the most remarkable interviews the reticent CBS host has ever given. Besides last year’s interview with the Whitney Houston family, high-rated episodes of “Oprah’s Next Chapter” have featured Rihanna, Usher, Pastor Joel Osteen, the Kardashians and Steven Tyler.
The Armstrong interview aired before the usual Sunday night time slot partly because it was considered newsworthy enough to rush, but also because Winfrey had scheduled and promoted a talk with Drew Barrymore for Sunday.
Considering many viewers still have to search to find the network on their cable system, that’s a particularly strong lineup for OWN. She’s more competitive with the much bigger broadcast networks than could have rightly been considered.
The impact of the Armstrong interview won’t be known for a while, Logan said. Winfrey has called it the biggest interview of her career and it has already drawn more attention to OWN’s content than anything else so far. Removing the stench of failure in itself would be a big step.
The interview could also help OWN reach the 20 million or so cable and satellite subscribers across the country that currently don’t have it on their systems, Adgate said.
“They’ll be calling their cable operators and saying, ‘How come I’m not getting this?”’ he said.
Television Writer Frazier Moore in New York contributed to this report.
EDITOR’S NOTE — David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org or on Twitter(at)dbauder.