At Oprah Winfrey Network, the revolving door spins again
By Lisa De Moraes,
Oh, the irony.
Rita Mullin, former program-development exec at Discovery Health Channel — which Discovery bumped from its lineup to make room for OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network — has just been recruited by OWN on an interim basis to help the struggling network.
Not coincidentally, OWN — a co-venture of Oprah’s Harpo company and Discovery Communications — just said “see ya” to Oprah protege Lisa Erspamer.
Erspamer, longtime producer of Oprah’s syndicated show, was once described as the embodiment of “Oprah’s DNA.” She was brought to OWN in late 2009 to ensure Oprah’s unique editorial voice across all platforms.
Erspamer’s sudden exit ends her nearly two decade relationship with Oprah but continues the revolving door that is OWN.
Mullin, a well-respected 16-year veteran of Discovery Communications, will continue her regular job as senior VP of content strategy for Discovery Fit & Health — the network that Discovery Communications created when it merged Discovery Health and FitTV to make room for OWN.
Mullin’s maybe best known for her tenure as VP at TLC, where she headed that Discovery network’s East Coast development team. Mullin gets credit for developing such ratings magnets as the dysfunctional-family series “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” the perpetually pregnant series “19 Kids and Counting” and the polygamy series “Sister Wives” — or, as we like to call them, “the kind of shows that would give Oprah the vapors.”
OWN programming will continue to be overseen by Oprah and network President Sheri Salata. That’s been the case since July, when Oprah named Salata as one of two OWN presidents and herself CEO. Oprah also took Erspamer’s chief creative officer title and “demoted,” some sources say, Erspamer to EVP of production and development.
When Erspamer was brought to OWN by Oprah, she was a 15-year veteran of Harpo Productions, where she had served as co-exec producer of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” since 2006. Erspamer relocated to OWN’s Los Angeles headquarters.
Oprah then described Erspamer as “a creative superstar,” saying: “I value her passion and sensibilities and trust her instincts and judgment,” and “I know she’ll be a great fit.”
Also at that time, then-OWN CEO Christina Norman — another member of the Out of the OWN Revolving Door Society — called the addition of Erspamer “an injection of Oprah’s DNA into OWN.”
Erspamer made a name for herself at Harpo by helping lead the most successful daytime talk-TV team. She oversaw some of “The Oprah Winfrey Show’s” most memorable episodes, including the infamous “You get a car! You get a car!” Pontiac giveaway episode and the riveting two-part Whitney Houston interview.
Now it appears that Erspamer’s taking the fall for OWN’s disappointing first-year ratings. In 2011 (OWN debuted Jan. 1 of that year), the network averaged about 264,000 viewers in prime time compared with the 246,000 Discovery Health Channel averaged in 2010, according to Nielsen stats.
Most recently, Erspamer had been charged with fixing OWN’s latest stab at ratings resuscitation via Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show, which debuted in October to an audience of a half-million and then fumbled half that number.
The O’Donnell set has been scrapped, as has the show’s exec producer. OWN has hired Shane Farley, who produced O’Donnell’s former successful syndicated talk show.
“Lisa Erspamer, Executive Vice President of Production and Development for OWN, is leaving the company by mutual agreement to pursue other opportunities,” OWN said Thursday in a statement.
That is all OWN had to say about Erspamer, who had worked for Oprah since 1994.
“In the interim, OWN and Discovery have tapped the expertise of Discovery veteran Rita Mullin, Senior Vice President of Content Strategy for Discovery Fit & Health, to work with the team at OWN on programming and development. She continues in her role at Discovery Fit & Health,” the statement concluded.