EXCLUSIVE: The struggling OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network has laid off 30 employees or 20% of its workforce today as the network is restructuring its operations in Los Angeles and New York. The responsibilities handled by the eliminated positions will be redistributed among remaining executives as well as employees of OWN’s owners, Discovery Communications and Winfrey’s Harpo Studios. “It is difficult to make tough business decisions that affect people’s lives,” said Oprah Winfrey, OWN’s CEO and chief creative officer, “but the economics of a start-up cable network just don’t work with the cost structure that was in place. As CEO, I have a responsibility to chart the course for long-term success for the network. To wholly achieve that long-term success, this was a necessary next step.”
Departing as part of the layoffs is OWN SVP Production Julie Stern. Additionally, OWN COO John MacDonald went to management a few months ago to let them know he was not planning to renew his contract. He was asked to stay on to help with the transition, which he agreed to and will stay through May. In light of MacDonald’s pending departure, Neal Kirsch, CFO of Discovery’s U.S. networks, will be moving to OWN in the role of chief operating officer and chief financial officer, reporting to OWN presidents Erik Logan and Sheri Salata. In addition, following the recent exit of SVP Business and Legal Affairs Alan Saxe, Tina Perry, VP Business and Legal Affairs, OWN, will now oversee the department and partner with Lee Bartlett, EVP Global Production Management, Business and Legal Affairs, Discovery. Michelle Holt, VP Production, OWN, will oversee production, replacing Stern; and Ian Parmiter, SVP Marketing, Discovery Ad Sales, will oversee integrated marketing for OWN. “We have been on the air for 15 months, and since September we have gained momentum in ratings and viewership,” Logan said. “Restructuring our business will allow us to build a solid foundation for long-term growth.” After a disappointing start, OWN has posted modest ratings gains in the past few months, culminating with the record 3.5 million viewership for Winfrey’s interview with Whitney Houston’s daughter earlier this month. Winfrey officially took the reins of OWN as CEO last summer when Harpo Studios presidents Logan and Salata were named network presidents.
The layoffs come on the heels of OWN’s decision on Friday to cancel the Rosie O’Donnell talk show, which also will likely lead to departures. (About 30 crew members working on the show were already laid off when it was scaled back to a smaller venue in January, along with 5-6 staffers who left with Page Hurwitz when she departed as executive producer in December.) The headcount reduction also follows the latest high-profile OWN executive exits of EVP of production and development Lisa Erspamer, one of Winfrey’s closest and most trusted executives, and Saxe. OWN had been in cost-cutting mode in the past couple of months. The efforts in that area have been spearheaded by new Discovery CFO Andy Warren, who has been examining OWN’s books. In a first step, the network last month eliminated temp positions.