Is OWN coming back from the dead?
The first part of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Lance Armstrong, where he admitted to using performance enhancing drugs throughout his professional racing career, earned the network 3.2 million viewers.
“Morale is super-high – there’s definitely a buzz and energy in the air that things have finally turned around,” an OWN insider explained of the mood at the network after Winfrey landed a series of big “gets” for “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” including interviews with David Letterman, Rihanna, Usher, Pastor Joel Osteen, the Kardashians and Steven Tyler.
While staffers were somewhat disappointed with the ratings, which did not even match Winfrey’s less publicized sit down with the late Whitney Houston’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina, back in March, which earned the network 3.5 million viewers, the general consensus at the cable network that OWN is finally on the right path.
“There’s been a lot of second-guessing. ‘Should we have done it live?’ ‘Did we wait to long to air it?’ ‘Should we have streamed it on the Internet?’" the source told FOX411. "But ultimately, Oprah’s back on the front page of the newspaper and people are talking about her in a positive way, which hasn’t happened in a while. That goes a long way in boosting the morale at OWN.”
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Winfrey is planning on following up Armstrong with an even bigger “get.”
“Oprah is working on landing the Obama girls, or to have the first sit-down interview with the President after his inauguration,” the source explained. “The timing is finally right for Oprah to use her leverage with the Obamas to translate that into ratings for the network. If Oprah landed that interview with the Obamas, that would be a signal to everyone that OWN is here to stay.”
A rep for the network was quick to poo poo the insider. "Of course we love Sasha and Malia but there is no truth to the rumor that we have plans for an interview with them at this time," the rep told FOX411.
Regardless of any Obama plans, such good feelings have been in short supply at the struggling network.
After a much ballyhooed launch in January 2011, OWN’s prime-time audience dropped more than a third to 250,000 viewers. OWN also had several expensive flops, including Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show, which suffered through five months of anemic ratings – averaging just 186,000 viewers a night and hitting an all-time low of 60,000 for one particularly unwatched episode – before they finally pulled the plug.
Winfrey also eliminated 30 full-time jobs at OWN last March, representing nearly a fifth of its workforce.
“I am in the climb of my life,” Winfrey admitted to advertisers and media executives in June of last year. “I am climbing Kilimanjaro, and it’s all on Wilshire Boulevard at the OWN offices.”
With OWN’s dismal track record, the remaining staffers were unsurprisingly skeptical that the fledging cable network could ever change its fortunes.
“After Oprah told the press that she was back on board with OWN, that she was turning the ship around and that the network wasn’t struggling anymore – there was a lot of eye-rolling from the OWN staffers,” the insider explained. “But there was a little bit of buzz that things were improving – especially when ‘Iyanla Fix My Life’ debuted back in June to good numbers. But the consensus in the hallways at OWN was that the network wasn’t doing as well as the press releases were touting.”
There was however cautious optimism among staffers at the OWN holiday party last year.
“At the Christmas party two years ago, there really wasn’t much to celebrate – it was pretty dismal,” said the insider. “Things were much better at the Christmas party this year – there was reason to have some hope. There’s Iyanla’s show, Tyler Perry’s deal with OWN – there’s even talk that OWN may do some more hiring this year. There’s just a very positive energy. This is what everyone was hoping for.”
Discovery Communications, who is partnered with OWN, has reportedly spent at least $585 million on the network since its inception and is determined not to lose any more of its investment.
“Discovery is now firmly in place, running things,” the source explained. “When the network first launched, the edict at OWN was ‘Don’t talk to Discovery,’ and a lot of people lost their jobs because of that. But now that some of the top people have been humbled, they’re letting Discovery lead the way, and OWN is better for it.”