Oprah's OWN channel is slick, star-studded and forgettable
Jan 12, 2011 (McClatchy Newspapers - McClatchy-Tribune News Service via COMTEX) --
One thing became clear within minutes of the Jan. 1 debut of the Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN: With the possible exception of her manager, no one in show business has friends like Oprah has friends.
During the preview of OWN, which replaced Discovery Health in 85 million homes, almost every high-wattage personality associated with Oprahdom made at least a cameo onto the screen.
There were Jay-Z, Maya Angelou and Diane Sawyer talking about their careers; Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil and Suze Orman dispensing advice to questions submitted at the Oprah website; Wynonna, Sarah Ferguson and Shania Twain each touting her own upcoming reality show on OWN.
A few hours watching sneak previews of OWN's inaugural prime-time lineup led to a second realization: The people behind the scenes, the producers of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" who are responsible for much of OWN's look and feel, are really good at what they do.
OWN programs consistently glowed with the polish that is the sign of a top-notch team. Almost everything seen on the channel appeared as though it could easily be repurposed for the "Oprah" show (where, in fact, the host has been plugging OWN with the same relentlessness she has used to promote all her enterprises).
One oft-repeated hour was "Master Class," a series of celebrity profiles narrated by the subjects themselves. In one episode, Jay-Z told the story of his rise from a tough New York neighborhood to the heights of rapperdom.
His scenes, shot in black-and-white, wrapped elegantly around gauzy color sequences featuring child actors on a city playground. It felt less like a re-creation of Jay-Z's hardscrabble youth than an idyllic representation of it, though that seemed entirely in keeping with the adulatory tone of a show called, after all, "Master Class."
Speaking of adulatory, Winfrey could be seen and heard continually promoting and protecting her investment throughout the OWN broadcast day, starting with the one-hour preview show that kicked things off.
"Every minute of this network has been hand-selected by me for you, the viewers," she declared.
Some critics mocked this all-Oprah-all-the-time approach, but tell me, if you'd just cleared space on 85 million cable lineups, what would you do? Ten years ago, Winfrey ponied up millions to help launch another channel, Oxygen, but TV-wise she offered just a few tossed-off minutes of herself each day ("Oprah After the Show"). Her satellite radio channel has likewise suffered for her non-involvement (then again, it's satellite radio).
Indeed, it was fear of Winfrey's divided attention that led David Zaslav, head of Discovery Networks, to insist that she commit fully to OWN. That led to some tense negotiations, but Zaslav eventually got her to agree to shut down "Oprah" this spring and concentrate on cable.
Still, having television's biggest name fully focused on OWN doesn't ensure the channel will succeed in the hyper-competitive cable industry. The churn at Discovery Communications is proof of how hard it is to rustle up viewers and keep them from straying over to someone else's acreage. It is why Discovery Home is now Planet Green. It is why Discovery Times (led by current NPR chief Vivian Schiller) is now Investigation Discovery. It is why Discovery Health has become OWN.
Thanks to Oprah, OWN has a better-than-average chance of escaping the fate of its predecessor. And yet, judging from OWN's inaugural prime-time lineup, the Queen of Talk will be lucky to compete anytime soon with the HGTVs and Oxygens of cable, let alone the Bravos or TNTs.
OWN is loaded with forgettable variations on existing cable formats, like "Miracle Detectives," a paranormal-exploration series; cooking, talk and reality shows featuring Oprah's friends; and "Your OWN Show," a competition to find a new TV personality for the channel.
"Kidnapped by the Kids" is probably the closest thing to an original concept. Every week, one family conspires to pull the breadwinner away from his (or her) BlackBerry for a week of vacationing and reconnecting. The family chosen for the pilot was almost ideal: a workaholic dad who was constantly on the road, leading his tenderhearted 7-year-old son Jack to conclude that Dad was flying off to be with another family he loved even more.
Unfortunately, the show told only that one story, and the producers eventually had to start padding the episode with restatements of the same two or three complaints against Dad. This had the effect of wearing down one's sympathy for the plaintiffs.
It's ironic that Oprah Winfrey, with her unrivaled cultural impact, is pawning off derivative ideas to the public. After all, who was empowering women before she was? Not Lifetime. But that's the pickle she finds herself in as she enters the unfamiliar waters of cable entertainment.
The good news is that cable channels don't have to draw the millions of viewers who typically watch an hour of "Oprah." The bad news is that thinking small is not something Winfrey is experienced at doing. And when a venture does not immediately launch into the stratosphere _ as O, the Oprah Magazine did _ she seems to lose interest in it.
Success will come only if Winfrey learns to think small, and if this proves frustrating, it may not be long before she hands the reins over and the letters OWN become as meaningless as ESPN or A&E.
Aaron Barnhart: firstname.lastname@example.org
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