Oprah's task: Turn Armstrong audience into regular OWN viewers

Thu Jan 17, 2013 12:05am EST
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By Liana B. Baker

(Reuters) - Millions of people are expected to watch Lance Armstrong confess to using performance-enhancing drugs in a two-part interview with Oprah Winfrey beginning this evening, likely giving her OWN cable network its largest audience ever.

The challenge for OWN will be convincing those who tune in for the Armstrong interview to come back to the network afterwards. Comedian Michael Ian Black summed up the enormity of that task by tweeting: "Like most of America, really torn between wanting to see Lance confess and never wanting to watch OWN."

Oprah's interview with Armstrong is event programming akin to the Super Bowl or the Oscars. The wave of publicity generated by the event makes getting people to watch that one time easy. But the future success of the network, which is co-owned by Discovery Communications, will hinge on its ability to transform a portion of the audience that tunes in for the interview into regular viewers. That could enable OWN to increase both its advertising rates and the fees it charges cable operators like Comcast Corp to carry the network.

"Sustaining interest on a consistent basis is the problem," said Magid and Associates TV consultant Steve Ridge. "It is much like CNN getting big numbers during a major disaster, or the Weather Channel getting heavy viewership during major weather events. The peaks quickly turn into valleys with hundreds of cable channels to choose from."

OWN plans to highlight its other programming in an effort to capitalize on the Armstrong audience, said OWN President Erik Logan. The network will promote upcoming shows, including Sunday's edition of "Oprah's Next Chapter," in which Winfrey interviews actress Drew Barrymore, as well as "Our America with Lisa Ling," a documentary series that has its season premiere on Tuesday.

Both nights of the Armstrong interview will also stream live to a worldwide audience on Oprah.com, another platform Winfrey uses to promote her channel's shows. They include "Welcome to Sweetie Pie's," which focuses on a family that runs a collection of soul food restaurants, and "Iyanla: Fix My Life," featuring Iyanla Vanzant, a motivational speaker who was a regular on Winfrey's syndicated show.

In another bid to make its programming less reliant on Winfrey herself, OWN recently inked a deal for comedian Tyler Perry to produce shows exclusively for the network. His one-hour drama "The Haves and the Have Nots" and half-hour comedy "Love Thy Neighbor" will premiere in late May.

But OWN's challenge is multiplied by the fact that, despite it being a female-skewing network, a large percentage of the audience for the Armstrong interview is expected to be male. Or, to put it another way, viewers are more likely to be from Armstrong's fan base than from Oprah's or OWN's.   Continued...

Cyclist Lance Armstrong is interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in Austin, Texas, in this January 14, 2012 handout photo courtesy of Harpo Studios. REUTERS/Harpo Studios, Inc/George Burns/Handout