Bobbi Kristina interview a missed opportunity for Oprah’s OWN network

OPINION - With so many eyeballs on the network last night for that exclusive interview, OWN should have foregone many of its commercials and seized the opportunity to promote promising new shows...

Last night Oprah Winfrey reminded us why she is the “Queen of Talk” with the first interview with Whitney Houston’s daughter Bobbi Kristina, her manager/sister-in-law/friend Pat Houston, and her brother Gary, just a month after her untimely passing. For OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, the interview was a huge score, and could not have come at a better time.

It’s no secret that Oprah’s network has failed to register as must-watch TV. Reports have been steady about OWN failing to attract more viewers than Discovery Health, the network it replaced. In an effort to correct this, there’s been a lot of turnover, most notably the dismissal of Christina Norman in May 2011 as OWN CEO, just months after OWN launched.

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Although Norman, one of television’s highest-ranking female executives at the time of her OWN hiring and, outside of Oprah, arguably the then-highest-ranking African-American woman behind-the-scenes in television, is credited with VH1’s miraculous turn-around, she could not bring that magic to OWN.

OWN’s failure to attract viewership led to a surprising December Adweek article about a possible re-focusing of the network to target African-American viewers in the wake of the network’s ratings success with Welcome to Sweetie Pies, a reality show about one of Ike and Tina Turner’s former back-up singers, Miss Robbie Montgomery, turned soul food queen in St. Louis.

Since Oprah has largely made her fortune by catering to the ‘everywoman,’ which has generated some criticism that she did so at the expense of African-Americans, this development was indeed eyebrow-raising.

In an effort to bring some spark to the network, OWN launched the show Oprah’s Next Chapter, a weekly version of the mammoth talk show that brought the Mississippi-born Winfrey fame and fortune, in January.

The premiere, like the opening of Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes, which helped launch OWN in January 2011, attracted over a million viewers. Oprah’s Next Chapter certainly continued to build on that momentum with the interview with Bobbi Kristina and her aunt and uncle.

A masterful display of Oprah at her best, she gained access to Bobbi Kristina as no one else in television ever could. Standing up the whole time they spoke, appearing almost like a neighbor, Oprah was a comforting presence as she spoke softly to the child who buried her mother just weeks ago. Much of that conversation was familiar to many who have ever lost someone so special.
Bobbi Kristina spoke of feeling her mother’s spirit in the townhouse they shared, even suggesting her mother was being playful by flicking the lights off and on inside. There was a comfort in her voice amid the obvious pain. Her response to Oprah’s question on how she was holding up was as honest as anyone in that situation could give.

“I’m doing OK,” she said. “I’m getting through it. I’m doing as good as I possibly can.”

Later, with Bobbi Kristina gone, Oprah got down to the nitty gritty with her aunt, Pat Houston, the wife of Whitney’s older brother Gary who was also her close friend and manager. With her, Oprah asked the hard questions about how the family dealt with Whitney’s long battle with drugs and her state in her final days, even touching on an altercation between Whitney and X-Factor star Stacy Francis at Kelly Price’s party just days before her death.

They even discussed Bobby Brown, with both Pat and Gary contradicting rumors that the family did not like Bobby. Gary shared that he thought Bobby was a “good guy.” Pat even revealed her thoughts on Whitney’s rumored relationship with the much-younger Ray J, although she never named him. Most emotional of course was her recounting of that dreadful afternoon at the Beverly Hilton when Whitney passed.

As she walked Oprah through her last moments with Whitney, both she and Oprah teared up and, undoubtedly, the audience did, too. Throughout the excellently-produced show, there were revealing clips of Whitney singing to Bobbi Kristina at various stages of her childhood, as well as personal photos showing Whitney as a teen.

Much of the interview felt like a family conversation, personal and private. Oprah scored as she always did, and black Twitter, especially, was abuzz as it rarely is about Oprah these days. Ultimately, however, it was not a win for OWN.

There has never been a problem with brand Oprah. If Oprah wanted to be on broadcast television tomorrow, she could. She proved that with this introspective interview as well as the replaying of her revealing 2009 interview with Whitney. What she didn’t do, however, is draw anyone to OWN.

For a network with OWN’s reported struggles, such a grand moment was squandered. While there was a commercial previewing what is to come on Oprah’s Next Chapter, there was virtually nothing about what else OWN offered.

Yes, we saw Miss Sweetie Pies herself and received a reminder that a new season was coming up. But, for those who don’t know what Welcome to Sweetie Pies is in the first place, they didn’t get a clue with that commercial. It was easy to see what OWN’s problem was. Ultimately, it’s too focused on brand Oprah, not the network.

With so many eyeballs on the network last night for that exclusive interview, OWN should have foregone many of its commercials and seized the opportunity to promote promising new shows or even bring attention to quality, existing ones. It should have introduced many of those non-OWN watchers, which, according to Nielsen data is damn near every one of us, to what the network is. Whenever we watch HBO, we get the message that HBO is “not just TV.” We see what they have stewing.

OWN’s failure to capitalize on this one-in-a-lifetime opportunity is inexcusable. It’s also very telling about the state of not just the network itself, but Oprah as well. She’s so used to being Oprah that it just hasn’t clicked that OWN has to be bigger than just her in order to survive.

Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @rondaracha