Oprah Winfrey's interview last week with Lance Armstrong was more than an illustration of a hero athlete tumbling from the heights. It was also a pivotal moment for a famous media figure trying to climb back up the ladder.
Winfrey's OWN is showing signs of life after a rocky start, and the Armstrong interview offered a chance for many more viewers to check out the network. Nielsen said about 3.2 million viewers tuned in to last Thursday's part one. Friday's part two attracted 2.4 million.
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 its programming on just about every commercial break.
OPRAH GOES TO CLASS
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 during 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.
GETTING INTO THE ACT
Discovery Communications, which sank a reported $250 million into OWN, told Winfrey she needed to be more involved on-screen and off. In July 2011, she became chief executive 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."
Like all cable networks, OWN has a dual revenue stream, with advertising income as well as payments from cable and satellite operators. But a network still needs viewers, and there are signs of life there, too. OWN's prime-time audience averaged 310,000 in 2012, up 30 percent from 2011, Nielsen 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.
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.
HOUSTON FAMILY INTERVIEW
Winfrey was known for attracting stars and confessions on her syndicated show. And even before landing the Armstrong interview, she delivered the goods on her Sunday night show, "Oprah's Next Chapter." Her 2012 interview with Whitney Houston's family shortly after the singer's death reached just under 3.5 million viewers, still OWN's biggest audience.
The impact of the Armstrong interview won't be known for awhile, Logan said. Winfrey has called it the biggest interview of her career, and it already has drawn more attention to OWN's content than anything else so far. Removing the shadow of failure in itself would be a big step.
The interview also could help OWN reach the 20 million cable and satellite subscribers across the country that 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?' "