TV Review - OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network

Beloved TV talk show host and now media mogul, Oprah Winfrey, launched a brand new cable network on New Year's Day 2011 called OWN. The channel took over the spot formerly occupied by Discovery Health. During her interview with Barbara Walters in December, Oprah said she wanted a channel that basically had the same purpose as her talk show. She wanted OWN to be inspirational, informative and infused with good advice.
The New Year's weekend debut apparently did well in the ratings, but America will see how OWN measures up during the first and second quarters of 2011, especially in light of the fact that MTV's Jersey Shore recently made headlines with a whopping season 3 premiere. More people it seems tuned into that one night event than perhaps the entire first week of OWN.
The demographics for MTV could not be more opposite though. Sex, drunkenness and stupidity sell when it comes to MTV's key demo. When it comes to Oprah's key demo, smartness and spirituality are what sell. Where else could you find a series like Miracle Detectives, a show that doesn't feature Oprah but that could be one of OWN's signature series?
It seems Oprah has taken what she's been doing on her talk show for the past decade, fractured it and then spread it out to fill 24 hours. If you've watched her daytime daily over the past few years, then you know that Oprah loves doing survival stories. She's talked to so many people who have been in horrible car wrecks, who have been shot or stabbed multiple times, as well as people who have survived other life-threatening injuries but who have lived to tell the tale. Oprah even talked to Charla Nash, the woman who had her face mauled off by a monkey.
Instead of being a once-in-a-few months thing, Miracle Detectives seems to take this predilection of Oprah and turn it into a weekly TV series. The most recent episode involved a man who was cut in half, literally cut-in-half, but who didn't die. The show was about what this occurrence says regarding the existence of God. The show doesn't seem to ascribe religious meaning to every single medical case but merely questions the boundaries to what doctors can do and pits those limits up against the extreme cases that may be hopeless yet still yield positive results. For former Discovery Health fans, this is a nice crossover show that explores medical marvels or at least still takes people into hospitals to be wowed.
Speaking of which, anybody who watched Oprah knows how much she loves doctors. Besides her own talk show, she has successfully spun off several other talk shows, including two that feature doctors as their hosts, Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. If you thought having their self-titled talk shows weren't enough, both Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz will be featured in the new series Ask Oprah's All Stars, a viewer question-and-answer show. Yet, if you've watched either of their two shows or any of their segments on the soon-to-be-defunct Oprah show, then it's just a lot of regurgitation of Dr. Phil's platitudes and Dr. Oz's stale health-scare tactics.
Dr. Phil, whose syndicated program was Oprah's first spinoff, also appeared on Your Own Show, a new series that patterns itself after Donald Trump's The Apprentice. Instead of a new Trump employee to assist in his various business dealings though, Oprah's new series seeks a new TV personality not unlike Rachel Ray or Nate Berkus to host a new program on this new channel. Being a TV personality himself working for Oprah, Dr. Phil was asked to be a mentor to the contestants/candidates vying for the new position.
Dr. Phil's regular program will be re-played on OWN. I won't go into details about how Oprah found Dr. Phil and nurtured him until he was ready for his talk show, but for her to employ this Mark Burnett strategy to find a new TV personality, to basically copy The Apprentice, feels tacky to me. Perhaps Oprah is a fan of these psuedo, reality-competition programs where you start with a dozen people and week-by-week one is eliminated or "voted off the island." If so, that's fine, but I expected better.
The Gayle King Show, which is just the televising of Gayle King's radio show on XM Satellite, really feels like nothing more than filler. Oprah Presents Master Class has the potential of being like Errol Morris' First Person, but with celebrities with whom Oprah is friends.
When the website TV-by-the-Numbers posted the ratings for OWN's first weekend, someone commented when the channel would broadcast Beloved, the 1998 film starring Oprah. I haven't seen that film scheduled any time soon, but the channel has already aired The Color Purple, the 1985 film starring Whoopi Goldberg and featuring Oprah. This is probably because both critically and financially The Color Purple was better than Beloved.
But, when it comes to movies broadcast on OWN, I've been much more impressed than with the new and regular programming. OWN's lineup of movies are all superb. The second weekend saw such, lovely, interpersonal dramas like the Oscar-nominated films Billy Elliot (2000) and Happy-Go-Lucky (2008). Both were films when they were originally released I loved. Future weekends see re-plays of movies I love as well, including An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Dear Frankie (2005).
I haven't seen it yet, but the upcoming premiere of Lisa Ling's new show looks promising. I've always enjoyed Ling's investigative news reports. They're always hard-hitting and powerful. In the Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman had a promising look to it as well. Dr. Berman got a woman who was ashamed of having sex to slide down a stripper pole. Her aim is basically to counsel couples, married or not, to better sex lives and intimacy.
Yet, for anyone tuning into the Oprah Winfrey Network to perhaps see Oprah herself, don't press your luck. Don't expect 24 hours a day of Oprah. No! She'll probably only average two hours a week on her own channel. One hour will be devoted to a weekly program called Season 25: Oprah Behind the Secnes. In case you can't get what the program is about from its subtle title, it's a documentary series that follows Oprah and her creative team as they produce what will be the final season of episodes of Oprah's national talk show.
For people like me who work in the TV business, seeing the problems and the conflicts with putting on a daily national show is very interesting. You see something spectacular on Oprah's show like John Travolta emerge from a re-creation of a huge airplane inside the TV studio and you think that it was cool, but putting that all together is a crazed, hectic and edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. The first episode of Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes captured that thrill ride and the following episodes captured equally thrilling moments and is perhaps the best series on the network thus far.


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