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Looking ahead to Oprah's future

Oprah Winfrey acknowledges fans during a star-studded double-taping

Oprah Winfrey acknowledges fans during a star-studded double-taping of "Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular, in Chicago. (May 17, 2011) Credit: AP

The challenge now facing Oprah Winfrey is to turn around her 5-month-old cable network, which has burned through executives, money and even some investor confidence.

OWN -- or the Oprah Winfrey Network -- is projected to be in more than 80 million homes by year's end, but so far has attracted viewers in only about 179,000, on average, with a mix of original shows and repeats of programs like "Dr. Phil." Earlier this month, Winfrey fired the channel's chief executive, Christina Norman, and installed an interim boss, Peter Liguori, former president of Fox Entertainment.

Meanwhile, OWN's key partner, Discovery Communications, has conceded some disappointment, but has pledged continued financial support. OWN is expected to lose $57 million this year, according to projections by Charlottesville, Va.-based research company SNL Kagan.

"The ratings are below our expectations, but we are digging in," said David Zaslav, Discovery's chief executive in a recent conference call to analysts.

One reason OWN is struggling, say industry observers, is that Winfrey has devoted most of her time and energy to wrapping her talk show. "It's going to take a long time for them to get the ship on the right track because Oprah wasn't there at the beginning, and so the vision of what they are doing is not crystal clear," said Tim Krass, a veteran cable programming executive and Los Angeles-based consultant.

Edward Kurpis, the co-founder of CNBC, who now teaches at Baruch College, said, "You don't feel like you're getting the Oprah experience by tuning into OWN," adding that "particularly in the launch phase, the more Oprah that you see, the more likely that people are going to want to see it."

Winfrey has said she has no intention of launching a new talk show on OWN. But she's expected to boost her presence with a prime-time show called "Oprah's Next Chapter" -- expected to air in the fall -- about her world travels with the rich and famous, like Jay Z. Repeats of the syndicated show -- promising new material and "new insights," according to OWN, will also arrive in the fall. ("Oprah" reruns will still air weekdays on WABC/7 at 1:07 a.m. and on WLNY/10/55 at 7 p.m.)

"It all comes down to more on-air appearances of Oprah Winfrey," said Derek Baine, Kagan senior analyst. "When you name the channel the Oprah Winfrey Network you expect to turn it on and see Oprah."

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