|Sex Discrimination Lawsuit Latest Woe for Oprah Network|
|By LUCHINA FISHER (@luchina)||Feb 4, 2013, 12:46 PM|
No one ever said running a network would be easy, even for talk titan Oprah Winfrey.
The newest issue at Winfrey's network, OWN, is a lawsuit filed against the network by a former senior executive claiming sex discrimination.
Carolyn Hommel, former senior director of scheduling and acquisitions, claims in a 19-page lawsuit that her job duties and responsibilities were reassigned to a temporary employee because of "her pregnancy and pregnancy-related medical conditions." Hommel further says that before she became pregnant, she had received positive performance reviews and was told that she was "on track to become a Vice President at OWN." But after she went on maternity leave in February 2012, not only was her job eliminated, but she was passed over for the vice president's position, which instead went to the temporary employee.
In the suit, obtained by ABCNews.com, Hommel, who is seeking unspecified damages, claims that her superior at OWN, Michael Garner, gave her a "negative and untruthful performance" after she became pregnant, ruining her chances of promotion.
Hommel's attorney, Michael Bononi, told ABCNews.com that the former executive's complaint is directed at the network, not Winfrey. "We're going to do everything that we can to make sure this is directed toward the network," he said. "Personal vendettas are not on her agenda. At the same time, she's disappointed that the management allowed this to go on."
Reps for OWN did not immediately respond to ABCNews.com's request for comment.
Since launching her fledgling network in January 2011, Winfrey has struggled to keep viewers, laid off employees, canceled shows and even stepped into the role of CEO. She has also scored huge exclusive interviews, signed a deal with Tyler Perry to produce scripted shows and opened up about her struggles with the network.
"There's no way you can accomplish anything of any value without having a challenge," she told viewers last July on a two-hour OWN special, "Oprah Builds a Network." "Nobody rides into anything. Nobody."
Despite all the setbacks, Winfrey said she is still optimistic and grateful for the opportunity.
"A network that gets to carry your name and your vision and your heart's desire, literally your heart's desire ... you get to play out on the stage of a television. Wow, that's grace. That's good," she said.
Click through to see some of OWN's ups and downs these past two years.
Winfrey's two-part exclusive interview with disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, who finally came clean about using banned substances for years after being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, was a huge boost for her new network. Armstrong's confession to Winfrey attracted an estimated 28 million viewers worldwide and brought the former daytime talk host widespread praise.
In October 2012, Winfrey inked a multi-year deal with fellow media mogul Tyler Perry, under which he will executive produce, write and direct two new scripted series for OWN, marking the first foray into scripted programming for Winfrey's network. OWN plans to premiere two new scripted series by Perry sometime in mid-2013. Perry, who found success on the big screen with the Madea films, also has a successful track record in television with TBS' "House of Payne," "Meet the Browns" and "For Better or Worse."
Last July, Winfrey faced a barrage of criticism from disappointed Indian viewers who said she resorted to "stereotypes" and "cliches" during a two-part episode of her show "Oprah's Next Chapter" dealing with her visit to the subcontinent.
The episode, which depicted Winfrey's first visit to the country, featured lavish parties with Bollywood stars and Indian royalty, a visit to a Mumbai slum and a sari fitting with a top designer, and opened with shots of crowded roads filled with painted elephants, snake charmers and cows roaming the streets.
"It's all the stereotypes and all the cliches the West has, between the elephants and the palaces and the snake charmers and cows," Aseem Chhabra, a freelance journalist and columnist for the Mumbai Mirror, told ABC News. "I think I expected a lot more from somebody like Oprah Winfrey."
A spokeswoman for Harpo, the company that produces "Oprah's Next Chapter," responded to the criticism in a statement: "The intention of the program was to explore the beautiful culture and spirit of the country. We enjoyed the time we spent there and were touched by the people who so generously shared their stories for the show."
There was widespread excitement following the announcement that Winfrey was bringing Rosie O'Donnell back to television with her own show on OWN, produced out of Winfrey's Chicago television studio. But after premiering in October 2011, "The Rosie Show" faltered in ratings, bringing in around 200,000 viewers in its 7 p.m. time slot. It went through two executive producers before Winfrey pulled the plug in March 2012.
In a statement, Winfrey said, "I thank Rosie from the bottom of my heart for joining me on this journey. She has been an incredible partner, working to deliver the best possible show every single day."
O'Donnell said in a statement that she loved working with Winfrey: "I was welcomed with open arms and will never forget the kindness of all I encountered. It was a great year for me -- I wish the show was able to attract more viewers -- but it did not. So I am headed back to my home in New York -- with gratitude. On we go!"
OWN drew more than a million viewers for its January 2011 premiere but floundered soon after, averaging less than a third of that. By May, CEO Christina Norman had been ousted and Winfrey acknowledged that the channel was "not where I want it to be." Then, in July 2011, she took the step of assuming the helm herself in addition to being chairman of the network.
After laying off 30 employees and cancelling O'Donnell's talk show, Winfrey said in the documentary of her first year as CEO of OWN, "I don't know of a worse week of my entire life. I certainly did not expect the velocity of schadenfreude -- meaning people sort of lying in wait for you to fail, or make a mistake."
"The fact that no matter what you've accomplished, that you're still susceptible to that kind of schadenfreude, really was really very helpful to me," said Winfrey, who is slowly righting the ship.
According to The New York Times, Winfrey's business partner, Discovery Communications, expects OWN to turn a profit in late 2013.