Last week the research firm SNL Kagan raised the possibility of OWN's demise, predicting that it could soon be doomed if its ratings don't improve. It projected that OWN could lose $142.9 million this year.
Winfrey's painful struggle with OWN raises an equally painful question: Have we finally reached the point of too many networks?
We live in the age of screen creep, in which news, trivia, and ads - mostly ads - pop up in places they never would have just a decade ago. We're confronted with TV on elevators, in taxicabs, even in public bathrooms.
There are plenty of niche networks -- about military history, golf, fishing -- that may not strike the average viewer as essential. But at least they're valuable to their small audiences. When we think of networks that could easily disappear, we think of four that few people would miss.
Two of them - No. 4 and No. 1 -- were horrible ideas from the start. The other two -- including, we regret to say, OWN -- could be great with some changes. As it stands, they try so hard to please everyone that they please almost no one.
The fast-food giant announced in October that its restaurants would start posting screens that will air programming from overstretched reality vet Mark Burnett, BBC America and others. It will include local news and entertainment stories, spotlights on upcoming music, shows and movies. Can we just eat our fatty food in peace?
The real purpose of McTV, of course, is to take yet another opportunity to brand and advertise McDonald's. But really: Is it necessary to keep selling us your product when we're already sitting in your plastic booth, choking it down? That would be like a Ford that automatically runs a Ford ad every few minutes.
Also, as "Fast Food Nation" so depressingly explained, McDonald's influence has already mechanized almost every aspect of our lives, from the way we check into hotels to what we watch. So much TV already is essentially McTV: small nuggets of fattening, low-protein content we swallow because it's easy and cheap. Don't add insult to injury, McDonald's. You've already won.
3. VH1 When did the home of such witty shows as "Pop Up Video," "Best Week Ever" and "Behind the Music" start looking like an even tackier Bravo? When VH1 decided to de-emphasize music and cutting pop culture commentary, and instead follow seventh-tier celebrities from their pole-dancing classes to that stupid handbag store they're starting.
Yes, there are several hours of videos on "Jump Start" each morning. But then VH1's schedule collapses into a messy collage of reality shows starring relatives of famous people. There are also some movies.
Look, we get the strategy here: VH1 is looking for its own "Jersey Shore." But the network that once seemed like MTV's cool, laid-back older cousin now seems like a trashy, needy cousin trying desperately to seem with it. Long ago, VH1 occasionally gave off an overly reverent, Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame vibe. It shook it, only to go way too far in the other direction. Now instead of idolizing legitimate talents, it endlessly documents the stagey dramas of people with zero accomplishments.
All hope isn't lost. The VH1 Hip-Hop Honors could be a great example for the rest of the network: They're fun and celebratory without being exhaustingly reverent. They play music. And we recognize almost everyone on the screen.
2. OWN We hope someday Oprah Winfrey's network will look back on its troubled first years and laugh. Winfrey is an incredibly talented communicator, with a gift for reaching across boundaries of all kinds. If only that came across on her network. As it stands, OWN is mostly a boring conflict-free zone. It doesn't help the network's case that it often scored lower ratings last year than Discovery Health, the network it replaced, while burning through money faster than expected.
What's wrong with OWN? Winfrey has admirably set out to avoid the kinds of stereotypes and cheap feuds that fuel so much reality TV. But it's gone too far by also eschewing legitimate drama.
As Winfrey's daytime talk show proved, there's a difference between ginned up controversy and honestly confronting serious issues. At her best, Winfrey is the nation's Confronter-in-Chief. She has a gift for addressing subjects, no matter how painful, in an ultimately uplifting way. But you seldom see that on OWN.
Her campaigns for self-improvement are most effective when they begin with honest self-confrontation that provokes positive change. They're at their worst when they fall into vague, feel-good mantras. Take the matter of healthy eating, one of Winfrey's favorite topics: You can't eat healthier while constantly affirming that the way you're doing things now is great, too. You need to start by confronting what's wrong and working from there.
OWN recently scored its best numbers since its January 2010 debut when Winfrey interviewed Whitney Houston's daughter, Bobbi Kristina. Why? Because the interview was vintage Oprah. She addressed the very raw tragedy of Houston's death by making a connection with her guest, and still asking the questions her viewers wanted answered. Within the first minutes, Bobbi Kristina confessed that she believed her mother's spirit visited her and even turned lights off on and on. It was painful and hard to watch, but harder not to watch. A lesser interviewer never would have drawn out such personal detail.
OWN needs similar confrontation - good confrontation - and fewer platitudes. Until then it will be irrelevant.
1. Gas Station TV
Most cars in our thrilling modern age are equipped with radios, if not satellite radios. Some even have televisions. Is there really any need to barrage us with yet more programming in the five minutes it takes to fill up our tanks?
Gas Station TV, which boasts that it is the "largest national away-from-home television network delivering a one-to-one consumer viewing experience" - lot of competition there - says it has 30 million monthly viewers, almost all of whom should instead be paying attention to the weird guy offering to wipe their windshields.
We're not sure we should even call GS TV a network, given that it takes programming from other networks, like HLN and Bloomberg. But it fills us with sadness to think we've already reached a "Blade Runner" reality where people can't bear more than a few seconds without the comfort of a warm ad.
We feel worst of all for New York taxicab drivers. Already forced to listen all day long to the same loop of McTV-like features playing in the back seats of their cabs, they're now forced to endure yet more screen creep when they gas up. We're guessing they don't watch a lot of TV at home.
(Editing by Chris Michaud)