Rosie O’Donnell’s Disastrous Oprah Winfrey Network Experience

Ramin Setoodeh talked with insiders from Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show about what went wrong.

John Kringas OWN via AP

The St. Patrick’s Day episode of The Rosie Show on Friday opened with an unknown tenor crooning the hymn “Ireland (I’m Coming Home).” Sitting behind her desk in a small, audience-free studio, Rosie O’Donnell blabbed about how much she loved Chicago, her place of residence, and how she wore a coat for only two days this winter. She pontificated about her upcoming 50th birthday next week. She said that when she was born, her parents considered naming her after the season. “Spring O’Donnell,” she said with a chuckle. “It doesn’t really flow.”

The episode trudged along, rather inconspicuously, with the first guest: the tattoo artist, former reality star, and ex-fiancée of Jesse James, Kat Von D. The Rosie we all knew and loved—the one who built a $100 million empire with her landmark talk show that ran for 1,193 episodes from 1996 to 2002—was virtually absent, replaced by a subdued and checked-out host. “Um … so … you’ve been in the limelight, had a public romance?” O’Donnell asked. “I thought that was the first famous guy you went out with,” she said, not even mentioning James by name. Since the episode was pretaped, it made no reference to something else significant: the show’s demise.

As the final credits rolled, the Oprah Winfrey Network issued a press release announcing The Rosie Show had been canceled, following six months of humiliating ratings.

At the Harpo offices in Chicago, O’Donnell’s staff had been alerted of the decision only hours before, after weeks of rumors that the show was on the chopping block. Over a short TV life span, through countless reboots and hiatuses, the series had morphed from a delightful comedy hour that nonetheless premiered to weak ratings in the fall to a bleak, Larry King–style interview program with C-list guests like the cast of Dance Moms and Jaleel White. Through all the changes, some 30 employees from producers to writers had left because of budget cuts and possibly because of a boss who couldn’t decide what she wanted and frequently humiliated them in public. “It was such a fucking hellhole,” says one former staffer.

O’Donnell, despite her warm TV persona, has always had a reputation as a demanding perfectionist. Worshiping at the altar of Ro when she pulled in 5 million viewers as the queen of daytime and made everything she touched into gold—from Tickle Me Elmo to Koosh balls—was one thing. But O’Donnell’s new show averaged 186,000 viewers a night and hit an all-time low of 60,000 for one episode. After the format changed in January to a single-topic talk show, her ratings plummeted to a nightly average of 130,000 female viewers between ages 25 and 54, down from 180,000 earlier in the season. OWN had counted on the show to boost its primetime lineup, but instead, Rosie was a weak lead-in to all the inspirational programming that followed.

What went wrong? Multiple insiders interviewed for this story say that both Ro and O are to blame; the network never fit O’Donnell, and O’Donnell wasn’t able to make the splash she was supposed to. (Through her representative, O’Donnell declined to comment; an OWN representative also wouldn’t comment on the record.)

When The Rosie Show debuted on OWN last October, it was a Hail Mary pass by two of TV’s best gabbers. Winfrey recruited Rosie for her flailing network, with the hope that O’Donnell would bring viewers and buzz. O’Donnell’s last regular TV stint, as one of the co-hosts of The View, ended in 2007 with a spectacular on-air shouting match between O’Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck—soon after, O’Donnell spoke bitterly about View creator Barbara Walters having exploited her. Yet she also brought The View a jump in ratings that season, and NBC was courting her for a syndicated talk show, according to two sources familiar with the negotiations. She was ready to make it official with NBC when Winfrey visited her house for lunch. O’Donnell ended up signing a two-year, multimillion deal with OWN—because she admired Oprah so much. She also thought the network would give her the freedom to do whatever she wanted.

At first, the new Rosie Show was a lot like the old Rosie O’Donnell Show, which is to say it featured the Rosie that America used to love. Rosie cracked jokes with her live audience and belted out Broadway numbers. She ended each episode with a game show that paired her celebrity guests (Roseanne, Sharon Osbourne, Valerie Harper, etc.) with regular people. The critics—those who could find OWN on their TV dials—offered a smattering of raves. “The Rosie Show is an OWN program that doesn’t ask viewers to look inside themselves,” wrote The New York TimesAlessandra Stanley, “it just entices them to watch.” Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker called it “a blatant success in terms of quality.”

OWN wasn’t so sure, however. The premiere debuted with only 497,000 viewers, and by the end of the first week, Rosie had tumbled to less than half that audience. One issue was the time slot. OWN wouldn’t air Rosie during the day, because it didn’t have any original daytime programming. The network didn’t notify O’Donnell until the end of the summer that she had the 7 p.m. hour, which sent the staff scrambling to hire a band for a nighttime show. That also meant most of Rosie’s core demographic—soccer moms—would be eating dinner during its airtime. Making matters worse, the talk show had 74 different lead-ins, including reruns of reality TV series like Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry? and Police Women of Broward County.

The network had asked O’Donnell to abandon her native New York for Chicago, and that proved to be another major disaster. By taking Winfrey’s old studio, O’Donnell was able to employ dozens of Harpo stagehands and crew, saving them from being fired. But it meant that celebrities would now have to fly—“coach,” Rosie used to joke—to Chicago to appear on a little-seen talk show. “People don’t go to Chicago on media tours anymore,” says one publicist who turned down his clients from appearing on the show. O’Donnell also had the idea to film a weekly reality series about her life in Chicago, but OWN didn’t have the staff to devote to it, and it turned into a sporadic monthly occurrence that confused viewers.

O’Donnell was confused, too. She didn’t know what she was supposed to be and was losing confidence in the funny material that once made her great. She started spinning in different directions (should she be more political?) and frequently lost her temper, according to staff members. During a taping in the fall, according to a source familiar with the incident, O’Donnell uncontrollably yelled at a publicist backstage because she didn’t like the parameters agreed upon for an interview. When the publicist wouldn’t back down, another staff member physically separated the publicist in another room from the talent so that O’Donnell could get what she wanted.

Several staffers were very upset when O’Donnell clashed with Winfrey’s longtime director Joe Terry (who has since been hired by Katie, the forthcoming Katie Couric talk show). People thought she humiliated him when she scolded him in front of a live audience for using the wrong camera shots, suggesting he didn’t know what he was doing. She fired Winfrey’s stage manager because she felt like he was ignoring her and not doing his job properly. But some of her biggest fights were with “the games department.” She couldn’t decide what she wanted—The Price Is Right, physical games, or trivia—and was constantly belittling the people who worked on them.

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She also wasn’t connecting with her bandleader, Katreese Barnes, a two-time Emmy winner from Saturday Night Live. O’Donnell was frustrated because Barnes couldn’t play obscure Broadway songs off the cuff right when she named them on live TV. “I just think you can’t develop chemistry and get to know somebody without spending time with them,” says Barnes, who is moving to Los Angeles for a new job with CW Network. “I didn’t spend enough time with her for her to know who I am, because my work speaks for itself. I’m not upset that I don’t know Into the Woods by heart. A little heads-up would have been nice.”

And then there was the problem with the show’s announcer. O’Donnell had temporarily given the job to a friend of hers, but viewers at home were complaining that her voice was too annoying. One day at a taping, she met a 29-year-old African-American woman named Hollee Chanel, who was so hysterical, she was hired on the spot to become the official announcer. Chanel was something of a folk hero on the OWN set, because she had just lost her job at a nonprofit organization and was now becoming a budding star, thanks to O’Donnell. But by January, Chanel was relieved of her daily duties.

She was told she could be a correspondent. She did one segment, on parents who fail their kids—by locking them in the car by mistake, for example—but it never aired.

There was another tricky problem. Market research had indicated that even the show’s gay-friendly audience was tiring of all the gay references and hearing O’Donnell talk about being a lesbian, but O’Donnell disregarded that critique. On a recent Friday night, she advertised on Twitter that she was doing a special where she talked about being gay in America. The show ended up being an interview with Randy Roberts Potts, the grandson of televangelist Oral Roberts, and it featured clips of Rosie talking to her staff about coming out. During another episode, she implied on TV that one of the younger staff members was gay, when he had never talked about his sexual orientation. The incident left him upset and embarrassed.

When O’Donnell returned from Christmas, after being booked as a guest on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live on Bravo, she ordered that her staff build her a new set. She wanted a smaller, more intimate talk show like his. A few episodes later, she completely removed the audience.

Some of the odd changes were being encouraged from the top as a cost-cutting measure. Lisa Erspamer, a longtime Oprah employee and OWN’s executive vice president of production and development, had planted the idea with Winfrey to bring O’Donnell to OWN in the first place. As soon as the ratings didn’t improve, Erspamer had O’Donnell’s ear, too, and started questioning some of her decisions. She said Winfrey didn’t like O’Donnell’s giant red curtain, and the staff had to dismantle it. (Oddly, Winfrey and O’Donnell rarely had any direct discussions about the show, according to sources.) Why were they wasting so much money on game shows—or Chanel, who had to be paid several thousand dollars a week? Erspamer did not respond to a request for an interview.

After O’Donnell decided to scrap the whole show by giving up Winfrey’s monster studio, she traded down for a tiny side studio, with no band and no announcer. Without an audience, O’Donnell looked and sounded deflated. Although early test research indicated that O’Donnell didn’t rate well when she spent too much time interviewing celebrities, the new format had that as the focus. A few guests, like Chelsea Handler or Patti Blagojevich, were fascinating. But most of the time, the production values were so minimal, it felt like watching a televised version of a local Chicago radio show.

As the new format was introduced, O’Donnell spent nearly an hour grilling the character actor Dermot Mulroney (My Best Friend’s Wedding) about his life, his childhood, his marriage, and fame. If the interview weren’t tedious enough, she had him play his childhood cello. (He wasn’t very good.) The full hour with Tony Danza wasn’t much better. Last week, Rosie had Liza Minnelli on, and the two women gushed about each other for the entire show. The interview was so toothless, it felt more like eavesdropping on two patrons having lunch at the Sizzler.

Even though morale on the show was said to be low, Chanel, the fired announcer, has no hard feelings. “Regardless of whether or not the public responded to it, I admire Rosie for having the courage to make the decisions no matter what they were, to be true to herself, to be true to what she wanted to do,” Chanel says. “You have to admire that about somebody.”

Erspamer, who had championed O’Donnell’s arrival, left OWN in January. Other executives huddled as early as two weeks ago to see if they should try to give The Rosie Show one more chance, with a different time slot. Winfrey herself eventually decided to kill it.

Before she made up her mind, Oprah paid Rosie a visit. Staff members who witnessed the exchange described it as awkward.

“Wow, is this the new set?” Winfrey mumbled.

“I love it,” O’Donnell said.

“Well, good,” Winfrey said.

On the day that the decision was announced, O’Donnell wasn’t even in Chicago to tell her staff the bad news. She was in New York, tweeting about what a fun day she was having on Broadway. Rosie, who was once dubbed the Queen of Nice, was taking a meeting for a revival of Annie. For her next act, she wants to play the part of Miss Hannigan.

Lots of yelling is required.