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OWN Staffers Worried Cable Net is Oprah Winfrey's Next 'Beloved'-Like Flop, Source Says

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Oprah Winfrey, Chairman, CEO, and Chief Creative Officer of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, poses with Rosie O'Donnell at their Television Critics Association presentation on July 29, 2011. (Reuters)

Has Oprah Winfrey lost the Midas touch?

With Winfrey’s OWN cable channel sinking in the ratings, the talk show titan has been forced to star in not just one, but two new OWN shows. 

In addition to hosting “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” a daily gabfest set to debut in January, Winfrey's presence in a nightly repackaging of old episodes of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” has also been greatly expanded.

“‘Oprah’s Lifeclass’ was originally named ‘Encore,’” a source close to the network tells FOX News. “Originally, ‘Encore’ was going to be a basic, no-frills ‘best of’ repackaging of the Oprah Winfrey Show, with simple voiceover commentary from Oprah. With the numbers for OWN being so horrible, Discovery insisted that Oprah have more of a presence on the network. So they’re scrambling."

(Discovery Networks and Oprah Winfrey are partners in the new OWN cable network.)

"Now, Oprah’s in full hair and makeup, videotaping commentary for ‘Lifeclass’ every day," the source says. "It’s her in a chair in front of a green screen. They’re turning what was going to be an Oprah phone-in into a full-fledged show.”

To drum up more interest for ‘Lifeclass,’ Winfrey also plans on chatting online with viewers to help promote the series. Variety reports that following the Oct. 10 premiere, Winfrey will chat with Internet fans live in front of a Chicago studio audience Monday through Thursday, and on Friday from Atlanta.

Winfrey’s increased involvement in the network is seen as vital to improving OWN’s sagging ratings. “The problem with OWN seems to be if it’s not Oprah all the time, people have very little interest in watching,” the source says. “Because 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' was so successful, many people in the industry in LA have taken glee in her failures. It started with the ‘Big Give,’ when the numbers weren’t up to expectations. Everyone out here was like, ‘Welcome to the real world.’”

“Oprah’s Big Give,” a charity competition for ABC, debuted to 15.7 million viewers on March 2, 2008, but steadily lost viewers each week. The finale produced a modest 10 million viewers.

Since OWN launched in January 2011, its prime-time audience has dropped more than a third to 250,000 viewers. An average of 109,000 viewers tuned in on an all-day basis in July, the last month for which Nielsen figures were available. That is one-third of the viewership expected by advertisers. OWN’s ratings are even worse than the channel it displaced, Discovery Health. OWN drew 15 percent fewer women ages 25 to 54 years old than Discovery Health in the third quarter compared to last year, the New York Post reports.

With OWN’s dismal numbers, Winfrey seems to have realized what she has gotten herself into. In a discussion with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg during a live Internet chat in September, Winfrey claimed that she "never had fear” until she started OWN, adding: "It’s a lot harder than I ever imagined. If anybody asks if you want a network, think about that."

Winfrey hasn’t had too many failures in her legendary television career. But one major disappointment was the 1998 feature film “Beloved.” It cost $53 million to make, and despite constant promotion on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," grossed only $23 million.

“The unspoken word at OWN and Harpo [Winfrey's production company] was ‘Beloved,’ because that was Oprah’s one failure,” the source explains. “Now, the big fear is that OWN is the new ‘Beloved’.”

Cracks in OWN’s programming plans started showing when Winfrey’s professional relationship with longtime friend Jenny McCarthy dissolved, as FoxNews.com was the first to report.

“Jenny McCarthy’s show was one of the big projects for the launch of OWN,” the source tells FoxNews.com. “It was supposed to air last year. It was produced by Harpo Studios for OWN. It was going to be the precursor to the Rosie show. Instead, it was just a horrible failure on all levels.”

Meddling by Winfrey’s Chicago-based staff was responsible for the show’s implosion, the source says. “People were working on the pilot for two months, the studio was booked, the segments were booked, everything was done, and Jenny McCarthy decides two days before taping that she’s not going to do her own pilot because she’s so unhappy with how things got out of hand with the Harpo team,” the source says.

Even Winfrey has conceded that OWN is having problems. “I wish more people were watching,” Winfrey told The New York Times when asked about the lack of eyeballs tuning in to see OWN’s series “Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes.”

The merry-go-round of top talent leaving OWN hasn’t helped. “The turnover at OWN has been so high, so many execs have left,” the source explains. “There have been three huge regime changes since the network started. Since Christina Norman left, I’m sure whoever is left at OWN is confused about who their boss is.”

Former Fox Broadcasting executive Peter Liguori took over as Interim CEO of OWN in May and retains his position as COO of Discovery Networks.

With “Lifeclass” and the “Rosie Show” both debuting on Oct. 10, Winfrey has a chance to finally turn things around for OWN. Discovery is also blasting ads for the shows and the network across its 14 cable channels.

“Next week will be a big week for Oprah,” says the source. “We’ll see.”

Calls to reps for OWN and Discovery were not returned.

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