As her many fans know, Oprah Winfrey champions a few golden rules: Take charge of your life ... look beyond yourself to learn how others took charge ... always remember if you can dream it, you can do it.
Another Oprah principle the wise know to heed: Never bet against her.
That’s a rule worth keeping in mind especially now, as the long-awaited OWN, Oprah Winfrey Network, gears up for its premiere on New Year’s Day.
The bold ambition of this venture would spark doubts if anybody else’s name were attached. Consider: A cable network started from scratch (actually, repurposed from Discovery Health, whose channel it will claim) and all-dependent on just one person’s identity, vision and marquee power.
The difference here is that person is Winfrey, a cultural force in the US and perhaps unrivaled in the world. Now, as she moves through the final months of her daytime syndicated talk show, which will end in September after 25 years, OWN is poised to become Winfrey’s new TV home base.
Instead of a daily hour boasting Winfrey’s on-air presence as host, OWN will be a round-the-clock environment in which, her network vows, she will often be seen but, what is more important, always be felt. She will be the network’s spiritual curator, maintaining a constant presence, even from off-camera, as she offers a slate of programs all guaranteed to meet her “Live Your Best Life” mandate.
It is a cable-network startup packed with as-yet-unproven shows. But these shows, 600 hours of original programing airing next year, are endorsed by TV’s most trusted figure. The Oprah Winfrey Show will soon end, but, according to Winfrey, it is serving as a prism for the spectrum of programs OWN means to air.
“I want to take what I’ve established in daytime, inspiring people and giving them hope, and some cars, and build on that, 24-7, OWN-style,” Winfrey told advertisers at a gathering last spring.
“Oprah is smarter than all of us and she has an enormous following based on absolute trust,” says Bob Garfield, co-host of National Public Radio’s On the Media.
Her influence as a newsmaker and taste-maker has always been greater than the audience head count for her show (which is seen by nearly 7 million viewers, a hefty number though down from 12 million at its peak). What happens on her show helps drive the national conversation far beyond the bounds of the show’s viewership.
Now, as her syndicated show is nearing its conclusion, you might wonder whether Oprah’s impact will be diminished without that concentrated five-hours-weekly firepower. Or maybe she will loom even larger, if possible, thanks to her network’s constant availability.
OWN will not only be a logical extension of who Oprah is, but also a logical extension of her daily show, says Christina Norman, the network’s CEO.
“Watch Oprah for one week and you see the many different kinds of topics she covers,” Norman says. “When you pull back, you see that those are really the tenets of what this network can be.”
Norman mentions interviews with celebrity guests, stories of people who transform themselves for the better and tips on how to choose jeans that flatter your body, all fair game for OWN programing.
And, yes, Winfrey will be logging face time. She hosts Master Class, which spotlights prominent people Winfrey has chosen to be profiled. She will be up-close-and-personal in Behind the Scenes: The Oprah Show Final Season, a 25-episode reality series that gives viewers an intimate look at The Oprah Winfrey Show as it draws to a close. And she will tape 70 segments of Oprah’s Next Chapter, which, premiering next fall, will find her striking out to do anything, go anywhere, with anyone she feels like.
Even as Winfrey pushes toward the finish line in Chicago, she is heavily involved in her Los -Angeles-based network, Norman says.
When the network’s logo was redesigned, Norman says, “She was really hands on. She’s a great television producer. She knows what makes great TV.”
The Oprah Winfrey Show and OWN are different enterprises, Norman acknowledges.
“But they come from the same place. They spring from the same ideals, in the same way she’s involved in the [Oprah Winfrey] magazine: You see her on the cover, you see her message on the back page and you know that she’s touched it every place along the way. That,” Norman says, “is exactly the feeling that I want people to have for the network.”
A joint venture of Winfrey’s Harpo Inc and Discovery Communications Inc, OWN will be available in 80 million homes when it debuts on Jan. 1.
Getting there has been a long, sometimes rocky, and expensive road, with US$189 million reportedly invested by Discovery since the network was announced in January 2008.
Norman, formerly president of MTV, arrived in January last year. When asked about upheavals that have twice caused the network to delay its sign-on date, she casts the birthing process in a positive light: “The vision and execution of the network has been sharpened and focused over the past year. And the right team is in place.”
Are the right shows in place?
“The programing is not going to succeed just because Oprah Winfrey is behind it,” media analyst Steve Sternberg says. “The question is, how good is the programing? Oprah can get a lot of her fans to tune in. Whether or not they stay is another question.”
“No question, the audience’s expectations will be unreasonably high at launch,” veteran producer and network boss Garth Ancier says. “But launching a network is not about any single show. You build it brick by brick, decision by decision, show by show.”
“With Oprah’s taste and vision for ideas and talent,” Ancier says, “this will ‘knit’ fairly quickly, I believe.”
“I think we’re going to learn so much in the first year,” Norman says. “There are things we’re going to have to retool and we’re going to have to be incredibly nimble.”
Norman hopes that, within its first year, OWN will reach an -average of 500,000 viewers in prime time among women ages 25 to 54.
That would represent more than double the current prime-time audience in that demographic for Discovery Health.
Brad Adgate, an analyst for Horizon Media, is no less bullish. He sees the network scoring an average 1 million in viewers overall in prime time by the end of next year.
“You’ve got one of the great brand names in media behind the network. It’s part of Discovery Communications. There’s a lot going for it,” Adgate says.
But Garfield strikes a note of caution.
“It’s one thing to make a daily talk show starring Oprah appointment viewing,” he says. “It’s another thing altogether to get people to build their media diet around her cable channel.”
The Oprah Winfrey Network “can’t possibly succeed,” he says, explaining, “it’s quixotic, it’s unreasonable, it’s impossible.”
And yet, on the other hand, it’s Oprah.
Garfield sums up: “I predict success.”
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