In a recent article on Realscreen, Adam Benzine reports that the OWN Documentary Club is discontinuing its monthly screenings and shifting to a less specific schedule. Benzine quotes an anonymous OWN spokesperson about the matter.

When the club first started, many were excited for the possibilities that it might offer — greater promotion through the established Oprah brand, more exposure for documentary in general, more opportunities for documentary makers for getting their work shown, and of course more money for supporting documentary makers and their work. Some of that optimism came from seeing the success that Oprah’s Book Club brought to certain authors, which Winfrey herself even states as a goal in the press. Could the Documentary Club offer something similar to documentary makers?

The topics for some of the documentaries sounded interesting and even a little boundary pushing. In particular, Becoming Chaz, a story about Chaz Bono’s gender transition, is one that is rarely represented on television. The piece earned three Emmy nominations. Other topics included homelessness (Tent City, U.S.A.), sentences for domestic violence survivors who are involved with killing their abusers (Crime After Crime), new lives outside religious communities (Sons of Perdition), and media representations of women and girls (Miss Representation). Other topics were lighter, such as a poetry slam competition (Louder than a Bomb) and New York City love stories (Love, Etc.), thus creating a mix of tones and subjects among the club titles.

Some of the documentaries got positive responses in the press, particularly with Becoming Chaz, Louder than a Bomb, Tent City, U.S.A., and One Lucky Elephant. Miss Representation continues to generate discussion as part of its educational distribution and showings across the country.

Several of the documentaries had the added boost of Sundance screenings and the news of getting picked up at the snowy festival. Becoming Chaz had its premiere there, and Crime After Crime also got picked up there, with ro*co films working on the deal for the network. ro*co curated several of the documentaries for the club, to which Winfrey appointed Rosie O’Donnell as host.

The push behind getting the club started sounded promising. So what happened?

The early press releases suggested an exclusivity to the club. Many of the names listed were celebrities, but many of them were actors, such as Goldie Hawn, Julia Roberts, Mariel Hemingway, Forest Whitaker, and Gabriel Byrne. Some new makers did have their works appear within the club’s offerings, such as Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten with Sons of Perdition. One story mentioned Barbara Kopple working on a documentary (Running from Crazy, which appeared at Sundance this year) for the network, but no other established documentary makers’ names were floated in the early press. The highlight on celebrities’ productions such as these seemed to set a particular bar for who might be included and who might be excluded.

While Oprah’s Book Club was centered on Winfrey’s specific choices and involved bringing readers into the discussion, Oprah’s Documentary Club didn’t have the benefit of Winfrey’s lead in the title choices or even in possible discussions after broadcast. Even though Winfrey’s book selections raised questions and criticism, they still brought some attention to the titles and generated discussion in the press. It would have been interesting to see her choices of documentaries and to see the reactions to them, though her syndicated broadcast talk show ended in 2011. Some of the curation for these titles was done through ro*co films, though that relationship ended in May 2012 as OWN shifted documentary acquisitions in house.

Another question comes back to brand compatibility. Branding is key for standing out within the cluttered and overwhelming media environment. Branding requires recognition, and recognition requires a degree of consistency across platforms. Oprah’s companies know this importance well, as Winfrey herself is an established brand with a global presence. Most recent iterations of that brand focus on life improvements and positivity, which can be seen in the “Live Your Best Life” slogan for the OWN show “Super Soul Sunday.” The Documentary Club itself emphasized the importance of strong stories, and its Twitter account bio explains that the club “aims to recognize cinematic documentaries that inspire and entertain.” While the documentaries appearing through the club do offer compelling stories, some of their subjects misalign with the overall positivity perpetuated with the brand.

That inconsistency extends beyond branding into content. While the club remained consistent in its monthly showings for about a year, it failed to expand beyond 14 titles and ended up repeating titles instead of bringing in new ones. The last decade has seen some strong documentary titles that could attract audiences, so the club was not for want of possible pick-ups.

It continues with social media. The Twitter account has been dormant since March 2012. The Web pages for the club have some comments from viewers and a couple replies from moderators, but nothing too frequent or active. Social media presences are key to keeping brands going, even if the content fueling the brand shifts or lags for a while.

The network struggled in 2011, but it saw ratings increase in 2012, and has been boosted most recently by the exclusive Lance Armstrong interview. As the network enjoys the uptick in viewership, it will be interesting to see if documentaries remain part of the options, gaining a greater prominence, or if they will continue to recede.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh is a documentary blogger and mass media professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.