The increasing demand for cable television content means the rise of more and more specialized networks to fill that vast, ever-expanding bandwidth. Interested in watching only programming that caters to your interest in professional horseracing, lawn-and-garden maintenance, or the specific sensibilities of Oprah Winfrey? There are now entire channels devoted to nothing but—all self-contained ecosystems existing far beyond the perimeter of mainstream TV, all populated by foreign civilizations of personalities harboring their own unique languages, value systems, and ideas of what constitutes entertainment. Most of these go completely undiscovered, happened upon only by an accidental slip of the remote and quickly fled after an exclamation of “What the hell am I watching?” TV Outland cuts a machete-swath through the TV thickets, and explores the strange indigenous tribes living just out of sight on your cable package.
The channel: Call it the realization of a lifelong mission, or call it a vanity project. Call it the future of a media empire, or call it a hubristic folly. You can’t call it anything other than the Oprah Winfrey Network, because—like everything else that has passed through Winfrey’s purview in the past two decades—she’s slapped her name on it, a stamp of approval that has previously acted as an assurance of inherent worth for her millions of acolytes, and skyrocketed the sales of everything from face creams to classic fiction. Yet ever since it became the gaudiest jewel in the Oprah crown, OWN has time and again proved the limits of the media maven’s influence. It’s easily the most talked-about, high-profile cable network we’ve covered in TV Outland, yet its numbers confirm that barely anyone is paying attention to it—the sort of mass apathy Winfrey has never had to experience in more than a quarter-century of being Oprah.
Over the summer, some six months after OWN first replaced the Discovery Health Channel in around 80 million homes, Winfrey announced that she would be taking over her flagging network as its CEO and Chief Creative Officer, personally shepherding its direction from here on out. It was a natural progression, some argued, seeing as Winfrey’s daytime talk show had ended in May, and she needed a place to channel all of her energies—like a sweater-clad shark that can never stop moving, or telling all the other fish how to swim. But it was also a rescue mission: Without her flagship series to prop it up—and OWN’s complementary Season 25: Oprah Behind The Scenes specials—her network had become dire and muddled, a cluttered mess of dull and/or semi-scandalous celebreality shows that were their own narcissistic exercises (Why Not? With Shania Twain, Ryan And Tatum: The O’Neals, The Judds, Finding Sarah), assorted health-scare horror-shows left over from Discovery, and endless reruns of Dr. Phil. Beginning this month, however, it would become an all-new Oprah Winfrey Network, with Winfrey firmly in the driver’s seat (though still with lots of reruns of Dr. Phil). The question was, would anyone be watching?
Target audience: Again, that’s a question Winfrey and OWN’s executives probably never thought they’d be asking themselves. After all, no one in modern media has a more established, faithful audience than Oprah Winfrey, whose farewell shows last spring were attended by tearful throngs who spoke of her leaving the airwaves in terms of ascension, referred to by Winfrey’s closest disciples as less funeral than “resurrection,” and were practically one animal sacrifice away from bringing about the Rapture. And yet, while her vast armies of (mostly middle-aged and female) devotees have long sought out her name like a beacon in the darkness, somehow they can’t be bothered to look for her on their home cable packages. Right now, OWN’s most popular shows average around half a million viewers—far fewer than the 5 to 7 million average she was pulling in for her syndicated talk show. And of course, even those numbers are a pale shade of what she used to garner: While her much-hyped finale attracted around 16 million viewers, those are the kinds of numbers she used to score for an average Oprah episode back in her early-’90s heyday.
And yes, some of that can be attributed to more channels and increased competition, and the proliferation of Winfrey-inspired copycats—some of them spawned by Winfrey herself. But it’s also because, somewhere along the way, Winfrey stopped trying to entertain and started to preach. It’s a proselytizing that’s reflected in OWN’s in-house promotions, interstitials that spout the sort of vague, New Age-y words you’d normally find in the “Wall Art” section at Bed Bath And Beyond. (“Joy. Insight. Honesty. Love,” one promises. “Joy. Feeling. Creativity. Love. Inspiration,” reads another.) And you’ll hear it time and again in Winfrey’s spiel, in which she increasingly refers to her audience as a “classroom” and her guests as “teachers,” and thanks her audience for “signing up” to attend. Her target audience is no longer merely “fans”—they’re willing students. And perhaps not surprisingly, those students have been playing hooky by the millions.
What’s on: To be fair, even though it’s attached to one of the most famous and influential people on the planet, OWN really is still in search of that audience—and in the process, in search of itself. Right now it’s in a closely scrutinized transitional phase, with October’s rash of premières heralding, in its words, “a new OWN,” one that’s focused more squarely on the inspirational messages that Winfrey is trying to impart. Of course, that also means it’s winnowed down its programs to just a handful that air in heavy rotation: Most of the week’s programming schedule is given over to its new, back-to-back signature series, The Rosie Show and Oprah’s Lifeclass, with multiple repeats of these (and Dr. Phil!) accounting for an overwhelming majority of the broadcast week.
While OWN’s reinvention has meant scrapping so many of the celebreality shows that often made the network seem like a way less fun Bravo, there are still a few vestiges of its nascent past here and there—such as medical scare shows like Mystery Diagnosis, which stirs the paranoid fears of first-time parents with stories of babies that bruise easily or inexplicably smell like pancakes (it's something called "maple syrup urine disease," and now you know). Or its fellow Discovery Health leftover, Unfaithful: Stories Of Betrayal, which provides conclusive proof to its captive housewife audience that, statistically speaking, their husbands are probably banging some 21-year-old right now. Mixed in with new, slightly more upbeat reality shows, OWN offers a strange mix of the positive and the tawdry that’s not unlike Winfrey’s former talk show—inspiring women to believe that they deserve the best, while simultaneously convincing them to expect the worst.
The viewing week: Providing some sense of journalistic balance to those two extremes—though it’s certainly no less interested in titillating fare—is Our America With Lisa Ling, a documentary series in which the former The View and National Geographic Explorer co-host delves into the lives of various marginalized sects of society, be they heroin addicts, transgender people, or mail-order brides. Like its most obvious predecessor on the network—the Diane Sawyer-hosted Primetime On OWN, which almost always seemed to focus on the terribly sad plight of various types of at-risk children—Our America offers a slightly more emotional spin on standard newsmagazine fare, with Ling often getting uncomfortably close to her subjects.
And while some of that revealing intimacy can be attributed to Ling’s naturally sympathetic persona, sometimes you also have to wonder (as with Current TV’s Vanguard) whether the relative obscurity of her show allows its subjects to feel more comfortable opening up. For example, her second-season première, “Amateur Porn,” investigated people who lead secret second lives having sex in front of their webcams for money—most notably a 50-year-old grandmother and country-club member who chose the timing of Ling’s show to reveal her hobby to her daughter. Though it happened off-camera, the mother relayed that her daughter screamed, “You’re going to ruin everything I’ve worked for if anyone we know finds out!” Of course, she may have been consoled if she knew that to do so, they’d have to watch OWN.
Ling, who spent years as a special investigative correspondent on The Oprah Winfrey Show, is just one of several Winfrey-groomed apprentices who have flocked back to the OWN nest. There’s also Cristina Ferrare, an author and established TV host in her own right who found her widest audience yet doing cooking segments on Winfrey’s former talk show, and who has now reaped the reward of Cristina Ferrare’s Big Bowl Of Love, in which she and the occasional celebrity guest whip up comfort-food recipes with a sort of glazed-over warmth. And then there’s Ask Oprah’s All-Stars, in which her closest and most successful apostles—Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Suze Orman—convene on a single stage to take questions from a live audience, offering advice on everything from balancing a checkbook to proper vagina maintenance in a themed question-and-answer session that’s moderated by Winfrey’s closest pal, Gayle King.
King, of course, is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Winfrey’s sphere of influence, having parlayed a rather unremarkable career as a local television news anchor into several of her own syndicated talk shows—and all this because she’s famous for being Winfrey’s best friend. That tradition lives on at OWN, where King is once again host of The Gayle King Show, a stripped-down, televised version of her eponymous SiriusXM radio show that features King, alone, in an intimate chat with a random assortment of celebrities and newsmakers. And as always, this despite the fact that King is one of the least-skilled interviewers in the world.
A recent chat with NBC anchor Brian Williams, for example, delved into how he chooses his on-screen wardrobe and his New Jersey origins, which King acknowledged by first asking whether “Snooki was coming over for dinner anytime soon” and then whether he’d ever met Bruce Springsteen, expressing some bafflement when her producers accompanied her query with an on-screen photo of Williams and Springsteen together. She’s also a criminal name-dropper—perpetually referring to lunches and dinners she’s had with “close friends” like Governor Chris Christie’s wife “Mary Pat” or romance novelist Brenda Novak—and has a condescending way of referring to guests by their full names nearly every time she asks a question, then frequently interrupting them with declarations of “I like that” or something similarly self-centered. “You never know what’s gonna happen in the world according to Gayle,” Winfrey promises in the show’s voiceover intro, but you can be assured that it will always be tedious and vainglorious.
Winfrey’s endorsements extend beyond her handpicked inner circle, of course. As with her talk show, there remains a stratum of celebrities that Winfrey, often by virtue of her championing, has elevated to the realm of modern-day masters in their chosen fields. In OWN’s beginnings, this sanctioning took the form of Oprah Presents Master Class, an hour-long documentary that delved into people like Jay-Z, Maya Angelou, Condoleezza Rice, and (in a two-part special) Winfrey herself, and their impact on modern culture. Perhaps out of a sense of humility—or more likely, the chance that it could be confused with Oprah’s Lifeclass—almost the exact same show now exists under the title Visionaries: Inside The Creative Mind, which similarly delves into the lives and work of people like Tyler Perry and Will.I.Am, exploring how they manage to be so rich and powerful yet still take the time to be, let’s say, creative.
As Visionaries illustrates, Winfrey’s primary relationship with celebrities is caught up in what she believes her audience can learn from them. This, more than anything else, seems to be the biggest indicator of Winfrey exerting her influence over OWN. As with the last few years of her show, she seems far more interested in educating—or “nourishing”—than entertaining, replacing OWN’s early crop of standard look-at-this-famous-person reality shows with more down-to-earth copycats of other networks’ successes like Don’t Tell The Bride, an adaptation of the British wedding show where a groom and his best man are allowed to plan an entire wedding despite having penises, and Welcome To Sweetie Pie’s, a TLC-style show following a family-run soul-food restaurant owned by former Ike and Tina Turner back-up singer Robbie Montgomery. Both shows have their lighthearted, jokey side, but also ostensibly traffic in “teaching moments,” which are seemingly the only moments that Winfrey’s interested in now.
And outside of Oprah’s Lifeclass, there’s no better illustration of where Winfrey’s head is at these days than Super Soul Sunday, a day for rest and worship at the altar of Winfrey-approved modern thinkers and philosophers. The three-hour programming block deals with matters of vaguely defined “spirituality,” screening documentaries about everything from surviving cancer to talking to ghosts, usually accompanied by an interview by Winfrey or one of her coterie with the films’ subjects, and interspersed with short-form videos from SoulPancake, the metaphysical multimedia company created by The Office actor Rainn Wilson. The day is set aside for exploring methods of self-actualization, and providing affirmations and meditations on how to become “your best self,” which is the clearest distillation of Winfrey’s overall goal with OWN. That it’s essentially Oprah’s New Age church—even taking place on Sunday mornings, right when those faithful to a higher power than Winfrey would be in service—is probably not a coincidence.
Signature show: That burning need to preach, and Winfrey’s belief that her true calling is to be a lifestyle guru to her faithful, is why Winfrey is still on TV in the first place, and it’s the sole purpose behind the network’s most defining show, Oprah’s Lifeclass. As its name indicates, it’s the realization of Winfrey’s lifelong dream to be a teacher, and accordingly, each episode takes the form of a prepared lecture—and is every bit as entertaining. Illustrating precisely why The Oprah Winfrey Show saw its viewership nearly halved in the ’00s, Winfrey examines past interviews and highlights from her old series, then transforms them into labored self-improvement seminars by seeking out and highlighting, in her words, the “Aha!” moments that spurred her personal evolution into her current, enlightened state.
Also, apparently, the stuff that made her such a humorless drag. Framed by interminable segments of Winfrey waxing philosophical from her couch, she revisits old interviews with people like Jim Carrey or J.K. Rowling—both of whom used self-actualization strategies to become rich and famous—and declares them some of “our greatest teachers.” Or more pointedly, replays her famous weight-loss reveal—that day she wheeled out a wagon loaded with 65 pounds of fat, then did a celebratory strut in her Calvin Kleins—then bemoans her younger self’s belief that losing weight was worth crowing over, saying it demonstrates “the false power of ego.” Never mind that it was a recognizably human moment, one that her viewers found inspirational and relatable. That was the old Winfrey, the one who used to define herself according to an amorphous sense of “identity”—and as she illustrates through frequent reference to her own mentor Eckhart Tolle, whose A New Earth she devoted several weeks to exploring in 2008, she has long since moved beyond individual concerns. “No thing, no possession has ever defined who you are,” she says, just one of the many aphorisms she preaches over the course of a very, very long hour.
Defining personality: And so says the woman who puts her name on everything, whose annual listing of “Oprah’s Favorite Things” was a miniature industry unto itself, who plucks classics from the annals of literature and recontextualizes them as “Oprah’s Picks,” who urges letting go of all possessions that might define you while framed by the logo for her very own television network—the initials of which even scream the word “OWN” in capital letters. That Winfrey never thinks to acknowledge this deep irony—or show the slightest hint of self-awareness about being, really now, one of the most egotistical people on the planet—continues to be her greatest handicap. In her mind, Winfrey is but a humble servant of her message. That her message boils down to “listen to me” never seems to occur to her.
Nowhere is the dichotomy more obvious between the warmer Winfrey of old and the imperious, coldly removed Winfrey of today than in the person who’s competing to be OWN’s most defining personality, Rosie O’Donnell. The Rosie Show—O’Donnell’s loose variety free-for-all comprising celebrity chats, musical performances, miniature game shows, and O’Donnell’s equally spontaneous stand-up comedy—is the antithesis of everything else on the network, with O’Donnell coming across as relaxed and relatable, irreverent, and frequently self-effacing. In other words, exactly the persona that made Winfrey so popular in the first place. While O’Donnell has a stand-up comic’s natural need to twist everything into a joke, she’s foremost trying to be your best gal pal—commiserating about Spanx and menopause, gushing over the simple joys of Chubby Hubby and a nice glass of wine—just like Winfrey used to do before she outgrew such earthly concerns.
O’Donnell even does all of this on the very same stage where Winfrey used to tape her old show, just one of the many suggestions that she’s moved into and slowly begun usurping Winfrey’s territory. This rivalry is played for laughs in promotional spots starring the two, where O’Donnell talks about all the kerrazy shenanigans she plans to get up to, and Winfrey plays the mock-disapproving boss, claiming that she never cleared that with her. But the tension seems somewhat less joking in the Behind The Scenes special that covers the launch of their respective shows, and handily illustrates their biggest difference: Upon moving into Winfrey’s old production offices, O’Donnell immediately tears down all the cubicle walls, creating a sprawling, shared common area stocked with comfy, brightly colored couches, then invites in a never-ending chaos of kids, dogs, and water-gun fights. A horrified Winfrey—who always demanded a closed-off, deathly quiet working environment—reacts to the change with mouth agape, repeatedly saying she just can’t fathom how someone can work like this. And that duality between Winfrey’s new self-serious remove and O’Donnell’s brash openness effectively provides OWN’s split personality.
Signing off: It remains to be seen whether putting the two together—essentially reuniting the old Winfrey’s easygoing candor with the modern Winfrey’s New Age evangelism—will be enough to draw in fans that, as OWN president Sheri Salata claims, feel “a void” where Winfrey used to be. (Granted, it’s hard to miss her when she won’t go away.) If so, The Rosie Show seems to be the network’s best shot at snaring them, as it’s already scoring the highest ratings out of anything that’s premièred on the overhauled OWN—far higher than even Winfrey’s own show. Its relative success suggests that what Winfrey’s followers really want is not a “next-level” education in Winfrey’s classroom, but to return to the sort of relaxed, comforting space Winfrey used to provide on a daily basis. And as much as has been made about how OWN suffered from Winfrey’s divided attention during its early days, and how the future success of the channel necessitated her getting even more involved, right now the thing that may be dragging the Oprah Winfrey Network down is, ironically, Oprah Winfrey herself.