I'll pop in and out on this post, you'll know it's me when it's in italics. And also because I'll probably be being mean.
(Thanks to Ben for letting me post. As I am currently employed in the broadcast television industry, I requested to be kept anonymous (A wise choice. Oprah's gaze is far-reaching. I sort of picture it like Sauron's eye, myself). Suffice it to say that I went to college with Ben, and he and I see eye-to-eye on quite a bit.)
If you didn't hear about Oprah Winfrey's public relations code-red earlier this week, you can read about it here.
Oprah's first mistake, as pointed out by the article (don't worry, I didn't read the article either), is asking people with Nielsen boxes to watch her cable network, OWN. You can't do that in the TV business. It is a cardinal rule. Nielsen, as a company, actually goes out of its way sometimes to remind those in television to keep the data pool "clean." Those boxes that sit in people's homes may look innocuous, but they send back numbers to Nielsen every day: numbers that translate into ratings. Ratings translate into jobs gained or lost in an already volatile industry.
The former maven of daytime has since apologized, and Nielsen is examining whether or not to assign a dreaded "asterisk" to some of OWN's ratings, meaning that the data has been contaminated and is therefore unreliable for use by potential advertisers. (soon, her data will be quarantined, then buried deep inside the earth's core.)
But a deeper question remains: why hasn't Oprah's impressive past success helped her thus far create a cable TV juggernaut? (or an actual Juggernaut? She has the money for it.)
One answer is quite simple. The channel, network, whatever you want to call it, should not be called "OWN." It should simply be called "Oprah," or "The Oprah Network." The American viewing public has a remarkably short memory. (But somehow remembers the lyrics to every novelty rap song from the 90's.) While the hype surrounding the network's launch was neck-deep, once things kicked off, the channel began its descent into relative oblivion. I daresay many people scroll past OWN on their cable channel guide because they don't even remember what it is. (They're missing out. Unfaithful: Story of Betrayal* is top-notch.)
Even before this incident, it was apparent Oprah was on a mission for more viewers. A blitz of commercials blazed across the cable universe, showing her interviewing the likes of George Lucas and Steven Tyler at their respective homes. After all, if she could put herself in the promos, wouldn't that finally get people to watch? (Maybe, but... it would still be an interview with George Lucas or Steven Tyler, though.)
"Oprah," the long-running broadcast show, was successful, even until the end, because it became more than just a talk show with the occasional celebrity interview. It became a spectacle. And spectacle, more than anything, is what is needed to make ratings gold on both broadcast and cable TV, these days. (And you know who sold spectacle better than anyone? Carnival barkers! Let's bring back carnival barkers!)
When you tuned in, you never knew if it was going to be a regular, run-of-the-mill show, or if she was going to give a car to every single person in the studio audience. No one else did that. No one else does that. (Though I've been switching dentists every six months, just in case)
We don't have time for appointment television anymore. We're all staring at our phones all day. And that simple fact is scaring television's powers-that-be to death. (Not a metaphor. The mortality rate is quite shocking.)
So, what does Oprah's decide to do? She decides to use one of the newer (more powerful?) media to try to push people to an older one. She hops on Twitter and haphazardly decides to beg people (during the Whitney-Houston-spectacle-driven Grammy's Sunday night) to switch over to her network.
Though I have heard a few statistics to the contrary, I firmly do not believe that using Facebook and Twitter to push people to appointment TV viewing works, especially among viewers under 35. With the exponential increase of the use of Netflix and various DVR services, we have been trained to watch only what we want to watch, only when we want to watch it. Unless, as I said, it's a spectacle. Like the finale of "LOST." (No spoilers! I have it DVRed!)
As cable TV audiences continue to fragment and shrink, people like Oprah need to find and develop better ways to push people from television to their online, on-demand presence. Not the other way around. (possible solution: Juggernauts. They're very convincing)
*One of my college roommates was just on this terrible show. If you click the link, he's the Hispanic guy re-enacting the white guy's life.
By the way, this may seem obvious, when you're searching for images of Deep Throat from All The President's Men, don't absent-mindedly Google Image Search "deep throat." You're welcome.