Oprah Winfrey may have taught millions of followers the importance of self-esteem and the value of a good book, but the Canadian broadcasting regulator ruled on Friday that her fireside chats with other celebrities don't qualify as educational programming, spelling the end of the Oprah Winfrey Network (Canada) as it currently exists.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission told Corus Entertainment Inc., which owns the Canadian rights to OWN, that it had failed to adhere to the terms of its licence, which originally had been granted for the channel known as Canadian Learning Television (CLT). The channel's mandate is "to provide formal and informal educational programming and learning opportunities that generally focus on adult education and that come from a full spectrum of basic, credit-based, skills-related and life-enhancing programs."
The CRTC issued a so-called "mandatory order" that the channel immediately abide by its conditions of licence.
"This is a quite serious step," said Scott Hutton, the CRTC's executive director of broadcasting. "If you're found in breach of a mandatory order, you're one step closer to losing a licence."
Corus re-branded the channel as OWN in March, 2011, shifting the programming to what it describes on its website as "a stellar lineup of original series and specials that focus on entertaining, informing, and inspiring viewers to live their best lives." The programming includes lifestyle shows about home decor, cooking, shopping strategies, and women in prison, some of which are also seen on the Corus-owned W Network. The CRTC directed OWN to reduce the duplication of programming on the two networks.
"I think they've lost their way," said Mr. Hutton.
OWN's marquee shows such as Oprah's Next Chapter attract the largest audiences. In January, more than 700,000 viewers tuned in for the first night of a two-part grilling of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.
Last December, after the CRTC asked Corus executives to appear in a hearing to explain how that programming fit the terms of its licence, the firm responded with a series of proposed changes.
On Friday, Corus claimed a small victory, noting the CRTC had not issued a summary demand to shut down the channel. "Corus Entertainment Inc. is pleased with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission's (CRTC) decision released today allowing Corus to continue to operate OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network (Canada) as a Category A service," the company said in a statement, referring to the type of licence that ensures it is available on the lineup of every cable, satellite, and IPTV provider. "Corus will work within the guidelines set out by the Commission and will ensure that OWN … continues to provide a compelling service to its viewers."
The company did not respond to requests from The Globe to elaborate on how it intends to change its programming, but the Commission said it expected Corus to comply "forthwith." The company has until April 5 to tell the CRTC its plans.
"We believe the popular programming they have will be maintained," Mr. Hutton said. Still, he acknowledged the channel will need to scrap some of its shows to make room for others that more squarely fit its skills-based educational mandate.
Corus recognized two years ago that the CRTC might look askance at its re-branded OWN, and asked the Commission to transfer its Category A licence to a more flexible Category B licence. But its request was conditional upon a regulatory exception that would have allowed the channel to continue to be carried on cable systems owned by Shaw, so the CRTC refused.