Oprah's Next Big Gamble

PHOTO: Oprah Winfrey attends the O, The Oprah Magazines Fifth Annual O YOU! at the Georgia World Congress Center, Oct. 15, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia.
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It's Oprah Winfrey's turn to try to salvage her flagging network.

The "Queen of Talk" is set to return to the airwaves Jan. 1, exactly one year after her Own network launched to much fanfare. But the fledgling channel has struggled to find viewers, even with Winfrey's high-profile friends helming shows.

"A lot of the programming is based on high-profile names, some of them a part of Oprah's farm team, but without Oprah to anchor them, those people don't have as much pull," AOL's TV critic Maureen Ryan told ABCNews.com. "The biggest problem is Oprah thinks her celebrity friends are the golden ticket to success."

Instead, Rosie O'Donnell hasn't exactly given the network the boost execs may have been hoping for. The show premiered in August to 497,000 total viewers but has dropped in ratings every week since.

According to Nielsen, which tracks ratings, five episodes of "The Rosie Show," which airs weeknights at 7 p.m., averaged 185,000 viewers for the week ended Nov. 6.

Meanwhile, Winfrey's best friend Gayle King announced last week that she would be giving up her Own show as well as a radio show on the Oprah network to serve as host, with Charlie Rose, of a new morning show on CBS starting in January.

That leaves Winfrey to come in and weave her magic with a new weekly primetime show she's calling "Oprah's Next Chapter."

"In my mind I never thought Oprah would entirely go away," Ryan said. "It's not surprising to me she's returning now, given the troubles Own has had getting off the ground."

But Ryan also thinks the timing isn't great, given that it will only be seven months since Winfrey gave up her daytime talk show and viewers haven't exactly built up time to miss her.

A rep for Own told ABCNews.com that Winfrey's new show had been part of the plan since the network's inception.

Starting Jan. 1, the hour-long show will air Sunday nights at 9 p.m. The first episode, with Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, will be two hours long. Unlike her previous talk show, Winfrey will not be confined to a studio.

She'll visit Tyler in his New Hampshire home, accompany Sean Penn to Haiti, walk on hot coals with Tony Robbins.

"After 25 years I got myself out of the studio chairs. I moved into the next chapter, and I am having more fun than ever -- moving around the country and the world talking to people I'm really interested in getting to know, and I think viewers will be, too," Winfrey said in a press release. "It is so energizing to be out and about in the world exploring new people, new places and new ideas."

But Ryan said it would take more than Winfrey back on the screen to save Own.

"I don't know that Own is established outside of Oprah. That still has to happen," Ryan said.

What the network lacks is a breakout hit that no one else has -- "something distinctive that Own owns, if you will, that does not rely on Oprah," Ryan said.

She adds that the softer lifestyle pieces that Own mostly features miss the mark with viewers. The reality shows or "docu-series," like Sarah Ferguson's "Finding Sarah" and "Ryan & Tatum: The O'Neals," have also failed to find large audiences. In the case of the O'Neals, the show even left them more estranged.

Own will try again with "Beverly's Full House," which centers on black supermodel Beverly Johnson, her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter living under the same roof.

As for Winfrey and her struggling network, "Never count Oprah out," Ryan said. "She's a formidable competitor."

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