Oprah Returns to Front and Center

With her network's ratings and viewership on the rise, Winfrey is out from behind the boardroom desk and talking candidly with Steve Harvey.

By Colin Bertram
|  Thursday, Apr 25, 2013  |  Updated 5:39 PM EDT
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Oprah Winfrey is back in the full glare of the media spotlight after a self-imposed OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) exile.

The talk show host, actress, producer, philanthropist and media proprietor recently wrapped an eight-city speaking tour in Canada, filmed a small role in the upcoming Lee Daniels film "The Butler" opposite co-star Terrance Howard, and will appear as a guest on Friday's episode of the "Steve Harvey" talk show where she candidly discusses topics ranging from what she misses most about her talk show to a tweet Howard made about the size of her breasts.

This is the most general and widespread publicity - aside from rare network news show appearances to hype her Houston family and Lance Armstrong exclusive sit-downs - Winfrey has undertaken since she stepped in to take the reins of OWN almost two years ago amid plummeting ratings and staff upheavals.

When "The Oprah Winfrey Show" finale aired in a blaze of celebrity congratulations and montage clips in 2011, few believed Winfrey would step out of the limelight for long. Her show had been running for 25 years and as host, Winfrey had become one of the most influential celebrities in the world.

While that influence has barely waned (in March, Forbes magazine named Winfrey the most influential celebrity of 2013, the second straight year she's topped the list), her place in the zeitgeist changed as she focused her energies on her struggling infant cable network.

Launching in January of 2011, OWN - billed as a mix of positive and inspiring programming - recorded debut viewership numbers averaging around 500,000. Two months later, it was announced that the channel would be getting a new chief executive officer and would undergo a major overhaul in the wake of viewership drop-off. Then, in July of the same year, Winfrey announced that she would take over as chief executive officer and chief creative officer of the network whose parent company is Discovery Communications. “I am ready to dedicate my full creative energy and focus as the full time CEO of OWN," Winfrey said in a statement regarding the move.

By the time 2011 came to a close the average prime-time audience for the channel was 264,000. Speaking to CBS in April 2012,  Winfrey conceded that she had launched OWN before it was ready and said that she expects it will take three to five years before the network is successful. “Had I known that it was this difficult, I might have done something else,” she said at the time.

At its low point the network witnessed free-falling ratings, major staff lay-offs and high-profile program bombs such as the Rosie O'Donnell talk show that was pulled after only five months on the air. In April of 2012, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that OWN may have lost $330 million since its inception in 2008. One analyst told the magazine that it was the most "successful failure in television today."

What her new positions at the network amounted to was a period of widespread public scarcity. Where previously Winfrey had an omnipresence due to her daily talk show episodes on ABC and constant media engagements, viewer access now came in the form of "Oprah's Next Chapter" (in which she interviews celebrities, politicians and prominent figures), "Oprah's Master Class" (which, according to the show's website "tells the stories you've never heard from the people you thought you knew best," including Jane Fonda, Jay-Z, Laird Hamilton and Morgan Freeman) and "Oprah's Life Class" (a self-help program based around her own life lessons and "aha" moments). Programs, not surprisingly, only available on OWN.

It was giving fans what they wanted: more Oprah. But only via OWN.

Using the network's troubles to her advantage, Winfrey went as far as showcasing her new roles in "Oprah Builds a Network," a behind-the-scenes special that aired in July, 2012.

In the 90-minute television event, Winfrey explained how her celebrity status was both a great asset for the fledgling network and a great detriment, because it raised expectations "beyond anything I was capable of doing on my own." She also revealed regret over remaining primarily focused on the final months of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" when OWN was in its broadcast infancy. "I can honestly say I wasn't committed to the network because I was committed to the show," she said.

 

To further entice viewership to OWN, Winfrey lured high profile guests for "Oprah's Next Chapter" such as the March 11, 2012 episode featuring an exclusive interview with Whitney Houston's family, including daughter Bobbi Kristina. The episode, airing only month after the music legend's untimely death, attracted 3.5 million viewers.

Winfrey pulled off a further ratings coup in April when it was announced she would interview champion cyclist Lance Armstrong following his doping revelations. While the two-part interview didn't produce answers many were hoping for from the disgraced athlete, 3.2 million viewers tuned in for the first installment (with a subsequent 1.8 million tuning in for the repeat broadcast the same night) and a further 1.8 million for the second. Oprah told "CBS This Morning" that her interview with Armstrong was the "biggest" of her entire career.

Add to that the announcement that Tyler Perry was joining OWN with a multi-year deal for him to helm two scripted series - "The Haves and the Have Nots" (debuting May 28) and "Love Thy Neighbor" (May 29). Additionally, the network has green-lighted two new unscripted series from Perry: "Millionaire Mama’s Boy," focusing on WNBA star Pamela McGee and her NBA star son JaVale, and "Houston Beauty," which follows Glenda Jemison, the owner and director of a Texas beauty school.

Winfrey was pulling out all the stops, and the tide was slowly turning.

"Last year I told you it was the biggest climb of my life... Well, we made it," Winfrey told media buyers and advertisers during a Discovery Communications upfront presentation in April. She went on to announce that OWN saw its viewership rise 30% in 2012 (currently the network averages around 350,000 viewers in prime time) and had posted 13 consecutive months of year-over-year ratings growth. Just as encouraging for the network, press coverage no longer fixated on its woes but on the slate of new shows in the pipeline and the steadily rising viewership.

And the announcements keep coming. As recently as last week Winfrey revealed she would be joining forces with Dr. Phil McGraw on “Oprah’s Lifeclass” for two episodes airing April 28 and May 19. No doubt hoping for a ratings bonanza, it will be the first time the two major television personalities will come together since "The Oprah Winfrey Show" finale two years ago.

Her pleasure in these early successes at OWN is evident.  The current expanded crop of public engagements she has embarked on highlights a version of the media maven virtually absent since she took on the day  to day management of the network.

A visibly relaxed Winfrey appears on the "Steve Harvey" show Friday and it's the version of Oprah that attracted and retained a legion of loyal fans over the decades: thoughtful, thought-provoking and balanced by a (sometimes cheeky) sense of fun.

During her chat with Harvey, Winfrey happily responded to her "Butler" co-star Terrance Howard's remarks concerning the size of her chest.

“It was supposed to be this little scene and because Terrence Howard misbehaved it turned into a bigger scene, and then a bigger scene,” Winfrey explained. “He’s a misbehaving kind of boy…he was on Twitter the other day talking about my ‘breasteses. (sic)’”

“Some people called me saying that they all were offended and I go, ‘Well, I do have big breasteses’.”

Check out the clip below:

 

 The "Steve Harvey" show featuring Oprah Winfrey airs on Friday, Apr. 26. Check local listing for times.

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