Can Oprah, Beck, and Olbermann Succeed Outside the Limelight?

The three television personalities recently left their high-visibility shows for riskier media outlets, cutting their audiences significantly. 

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Reuters, Reuters, AP IMAGES

Can television superstars flourish when they have to chase the limelight? Oprah Winfrey, Glenn Beck, and Keith Olbermann are embarked on new ventures that are outlets for their ambition and restlessness. But in the process they have, at least for now, reduced their portion of what is considered an essential ingredient in today's fame and fortune: a mass audience made up of devoted followers who know where and how to find them. Each of the three now has lucrative deals in place that could enhance their standing or--as is the nature of business--could flop. As the  Wall Street Journal observed, Winfrey, Beck, and Olbermann "recently surrendered highly visible perches for greater control and a greater share of the spoils"--assuming, of course, that their programming succeeds.

What is striking about these enterprises is that such mega-personalities as Winfrey and Olbermann are aligned with relatively small cable outlets with limited audiences, or in Beck's case, subscription-based streaming Internet video. Looking at the results so far, most of their fans still need to find them.

Oprah Winfrey is the most successful daytime television host in history, with an audience that averaged 6.5 million in her final season of broadcast syndication, after a 25-year run. Her new channel, OWN--the Oprah Winfrey Network--is a partnership with Discovery Communications, which, according to securities filings cited by the Wall Street Journal, had poured $254 million into the first months of operations, with disappointing results. The audience for OWN, about 210,000 viewers in primetime, were actually less than the channel had in its previous incarnation as Discovery Health. With the New Year, Winfrey, who had stepped in as OWN's chief executive, returned to the airwaves in an interview series called "Oprah's Next Chapter." The premiere was a visit with Aerosmith rocker Steven Tyler at his home in New Hampshire. The show attracted 1.1 million viewers, which placed it among the top five of cable networks in that 9:00-11:00 p.m. time slot with a particularly good showing of women ages 25 to 54, the target demographic.

Still, the audience was a fraction of what Winfrey reached in her broadcast heyday. So OWN in its second year faces a considerable challenge in reaching the anticipated profits from subscriber revenue (a share of what all viewers pay for their cable channels) and advertising. This double stream of revenue is what can make cable so lucrative. For example, the ESPN channels are the most valuable networks on cable and satellite, taking in about $6.50 per subscriber each month. For all Winfrey's savvy and stature, OWN will need to attract a strong fan base from her followers to command anything like the fees of a major cable channel.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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