Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

01.14.13

Can Lance Armstrong Save OWN?

Oprah gets another big interview. Is the fledgling network turning around?

Oprah's decision to end her show and start a network always seemed a little bit quixotic to me; why mess with success?  On the other hand, I figured that if anyone could make it work, it would be Oprah.  

Lance Armstrong
Oprah Winfrey with Lance Armstrong in Austin, Texas. (George Burns/Harpo)

My first hand had the right of it:  OWN has struggled, losing more than twice its initial budget.  My second hand was also right:  Oprah and her executives eventually figured out what the network needed.  Which is to say, more Oprah.  Readership climbed as she began appearing more often on her (cough) own channel.

Jeff Bercovici thinks it may be working:

For the second time in the young year, Winfrey has the interview everyone wants. Last time it was David Letterman. This time it’s Lance Armstrong, whom she’s interviewing today in Austin. In a broadcast that will air on OWN Thursday night, Armstrong will reportedly cop to doping.

That sound you hear? That’s millions of viewers clicking through their cable menus to find out where OWN is on the dial. Last March, the network scored its biggest audience to date for Winfrey’s interview with Whitney Houston‘s daughter following the singer’s death. The Armstrong broadcast could well exceed the 3.5 million viewers for that show.

There are two ways of looking at that number. One is as a big comedown from the size of the crowds that watched her on broadcast television. In the final season of the syndicated “Oprah Winfrey Show,” an average day was 6 million-plus. Her 1993 interview with Michael Jackson was seen by 90 million people around the world.

The other way is as a vindication of the premise that brought Winfrey to cable in the first place. With the Letterman and Armstrong gets, she’s proving she can still bag the big news-making interviews without the power of a broadcast-sized platform. And that proof is bound to be lucrative in multiple ways for Winfrey and Discovery Communications, her partner in OWN.

I'm of the demographic that aggressively denies being in Oprah's demographic, but I've always had a soft spot for her. Yeah, I'm not much for celebrity interviews either, now that I'm too old and married and downright crotchety to fantasize about dating movie stars. But I stil love Oprah's story. This is a woman who came out of the kind of hard-luck story that she handles so well, and built an enormous media empire. And she did it by being basically decent. Sure, she doesn't ask every hard question you might want, but neither does she exploit every dark inch of the human freak-show for ratings. It looks like she won't be able to slide into retirement via basically licensing her name, and I'm sorry for her, if that's what she wanted . . . but I'm glad for her many fans. And of course, for those of us who enjoy seeing a new business that looks like it might succeed.