NEW YORK -- Oprah Winfrey's interview with Lance Armstrong was more than an illustration of a hero athlete tumbling from the heights. It was also a pivotal moment for a famous media figure trying to climb the ladder back up.
Winfrey's OWN network is showing signs of life after a rocky start, and the Armstrong interview offered a chance for many more viewers to check it out. The former Tour de France cyclist admitted to cheating with performance enhancing drugs throughout his career during the interview, which aired over two nights, Thursday and Friday.
The interview "showcases the No. 1 asset this network has over everybody else -- and that's Oprah Winfrey," said Erik Logan, co-president of OWN.Winfrey, who hosts Oprah's Master Class, Oprah's Life Class and a weekly interview show on OWN, attended a real-life television management class over the past three years. The network launch at the dawn of 2011 came during the last season of Winfrey's popular syndicated show, and that proved to be a major strategic error.
The daily talk show gave Winfrey's fans their Oprah jolt, and they had little reason to watch the Oprah Winfrey Network. Winfrey wasn't much of a presence there, anyway. She was concentrating on making sure her syndicated show went out with a flourish.
OWN flailed for direction with little-noticed celebrity reality shows featuring the Judds and Ryan and Tatum O'Neal. A Rosie O'Donnell talk show was an expensive flop.
Discovery Communications, which sunk a reported $250 million into OWN, told Winfrey she needed to be more involved with it, on and off screen. In July 2011, she became CEO as well as chairwoman of OWN, replacing Christina Norman.
Like all cable networks, OWN has a dual revenue stream with advertising income as well as payments from cable and satellite operators to carry it on their systems. In its early days, OWN was operating on fees negotiated for its predecessor network, Discovery Health. Now much larger fees negotiated specifically for OWN are kicking in, many of them at the first of this year. Discovery says OWN will turn profitable this year.
OWN's prime-time audience averaged 310,000 in 2012, up 30 percent from 2011, the Nielsen company said. Isolate the last three months of each year and the increase is 61 percent, even more among the target of middle-aged women.
OWN is carving out a small niche where it hadn't expected.
The Saturday night lineup of Welcome to Sweety Pie's, about former Ike and Tina Turner backup singer Robbie Montgomery's soul food restaurant that she operates with her family, and Iyanla: Fix My Life, an advice show with inspirational speaker Iyanla Vanzant, represent the most successful non-Oprah shows.The shows have drawn an audience of African-American women put off by more youth-focused programming on networks like BET. OWN's audience is roughly one-third black. OWN recently reached a deal to develop scripted programming with Tyler Perry.
Winfrey was known for attracting stars and confessions on her syndicated show -- remember Tom Cruise's couch jump? And even before landing the Armstrong interview, Winfrey has delivered the goods as an interviewer on her Sunday-night show, Oprah's Next Chapter.
Her talk with David Letterman earlier this month was one of the most remarkable interviews the reticent CBS host has given. Last year's interview with Whitney Houston's family shortly after her death reached just under 3.5 million viewers, OWN's biggest audience yet. Other high-rated episodes of Oprah's Next Chapter featured Rihanna, Usher, Pastor Joel Osteen, the Kardashians and Steven Tyler.