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Winfrey revels in OWN profitability, ratings

“Oh my God, worst hairdo ever,” exclaimed Oprah Winfrey, catching sight of her 1990s talk-show self on an OWN office TV showing Oprah: Where Are They Now? But she glances approvingly at another monitor showing a Tyler Perry sitcom.

While the talk show – hair aside – represents the glory days of Winfrey’s past, Perry’s The Haves and the Have Nots is part of a brightening future for the Oprah Winfrey Network.

OWN is in the black for the first time since its rocky start two-and-a-half years ago. More than 30 new advertisers are joining original heavyweight sponsors Procter & Gamble and General Electric, and are paying higher rates as the channel has found its programming and distribution footing.

Headlines about profitability and audience growth have replaced the drumbeat of speculation that her ambitious venture with Discovery Communications might end up a costly flop and an uncharacteristic failure for her.

Now, she said, “rewarding” is the word for her experience at OWN, both as the chairwoman and CEO shaping the channel and as a viewer lodestone who hosts several series including “Oprah’s Next Chapter” and “Oprah’s Lifeclass.”

“I no longer have such fear and anxiety about it. I really have more confidence in my decisions,” Winfrey said. “In the beginning, I was in a lot of meetings where people said, ‘You don’t understand cable.’ . . . I’d say, ‘But I do understand the audience. Aren’t people the same?’ ”

The answer is yes, said Winfrey, who’s enjoying a career renaissance with OWN’s turnaround and her return to big-screen acting in Lee Daniels’s The Butler, No. 1 at the box office for two weeks with more than $50 million in tickets sales.

Her confidence in OWN also is backed up by numbers.

For the year to date, viewership is up 22 percent among the target audience of adult women and 23 percent among all viewers compared to last year, according to Nielsen Co. In the third quarter, prime-time viewership among women 25 to 54 and total viewers each are up more than 60 percent compared to 2012.

For August, OWN drew a channel-high 536,000 prime-time viewers, a fraction of the millions that watched Winfrey’s talk show but respectable for a developing cable channel.

Instead of defending staff layoffs and early misses including Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show, Winfrey and her executive team can wax passionate about OWN’s audience empowerment mission, nascent stars including motivational speaker Iyanla Vanzant and upbeat series like the newly announced reality show “Crazy.Sexy.Life.” The network will also feature fresh-out-of-rehab Lindsay Lohan in an eight-part docuseries based on her life.

“They are finally hitting their stride and the expectations the network had when it was launched are finally starting to be reached,” said analyst Brad Adgate of Horizon Media. “Oprah is back to being part of the conversation.”

It was those early expectations that put immense pressure on the former daytime queen and on Discovery, which has invested a reported $500 million-plus in the venture that it co-owns with Winfrey’s Harpo Inc.

Back in January 2011, OWN’s splashy introduction failed to drive early ratings, and skeptics gained more fuel with March 2012 staff layoffs that were billed as eliminating redundancies between Discovery and Harpo.

It was painful but necessary, said OWN President Erik Logan, who shares the title with Sheri Salata. The pair also lead Harpo Productions, which produces an increasing number of OWN shows.

“It was some of the harshest and darkest moments certainly Sheri and myself have ever gone through, and I think from Oprah’s perspective,” Logan said. “I’m not going to say it (the criticism) was unfair, but there was no shortage of people who wanted to line up and say it was over.”

Without the cutbacks, he said, “we would not be having the conversation about profitability today.”

The channel’s profile got major boosts from Winfrey’s interviews with Whitney Houston’s daughter, Lance Armstrong and Lohan. They were neon-bright proof that OWN could be a platform for Winfrey the confessor, a role she played to great effect on “The Oprah Show” in its 25-year run.

In March 2012, when more than 3 million people tuned in to hear Bobbi Kristina Brown talk about the late Houston, it “was a very significant event for us, because what it really showed was if you get the content right, people will find you,” Logan said.

The deal to bring Perry shows including The Haves and the Have Nots and Love They Neighbor was another positive jolt, while the success of Iyanla: Fix My Life showed Winfrey she could be the marquee name at OWN but share the stage with others of like mind.

“We are constantly in the process of looking for other people who carry the same heartfelt desire to convey the message in such a way that it really improves people’s lives,” she said.

Greater numbers of African-American viewers discovered the network first and are a key part of OWN’s current and future success, he and Winfrey said. But “all are welcome,” added Winfrey, whose talk show was known for its broad appeal and who said she intends OWN to follow the same path.

At the end of a recent workday that included a four-hour OWN staff meeting, Winfrey said she plans to make time for more film projects, including a producing role on a Steven Spielberg project, The Hundred Foot Journey.

But building OWN is her priority for the foreseeable future.

“I didn’t know how difficult it would be and how long it would take me to get to the point where I could at least see that this is the reason I did this,” Winfrey said. “I can actually say wow, what an incredible journey and landing I had.”

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