OWN viewers up as Oprah's added presence pays off

LOS ANGELES, March 28 Wed Mar 28, 2012 6:27pm EDT

LOS ANGELES, March 28 (Reuters) - Oprah Winfrey's fledgling OWN television channel saw a 21 percent rise in total daily viewers in the first quarter of 2012, as the talk show's queen decision to put more of herself on the network began to pay off.

But the 15-month-old venture is still attracting only 180,000 viewers a day, on average, to its mix of feel-good, lifestyle programming, according to first quarter data released by OWN on Wednesday.

But what viewers like best is Winfrey herself mixing it up with A-list celebrities. Winfrey's March interview with members of Whitney Houston's family shortly after the singer's death drew a record 3.5 million viewers, and her chat last week with pop star Lady Gaga was watched by more than 800,000 people.

Those two shows helped boost primetime ratings for March by 35 percent in total viewers, compared to March 2011, and boosted OWN to 29th place among the 97 ad-supported U.S. cable networks for the month.

"We are pleased with our start for 2012, viewers are responding and connecting with our programming," OWN president Erik Logan said in a statement.

OWN, a joint venture between Winfrey and Discovery Communications, has struggled to find a sizeable audience since its launch in January 2011.

Last week, the network laid off 30 production staffers and canceled comedian Rosie O'Donnell's talk show after just five months due to sagging ratings.

OWN said on Wednesday that its most popular programs were those featuring Winfrey herself, who returned to her chat show roots in January by getting out of the studio and meeting the likes of rocker Steven Tyler and mega-church pastor Joel Osteen.

"Oprah Presents Master Class" featuring actress Jane Fonda and country singer Reba McEntire also did well for the network.

Winfrey quit her daily syndicated U.S. talk show, leaving more than six million regular viewers behind, in May 2011 after 25 years. In July, she took on the role of both chief executive and chief creative officer at OWN, and announced she was working on the new chat show. (Reporting By Jill Serjeant)

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