Her OWN network: Oprah Winfrey is ready for cable
NEW YORK (AP) -- 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 there were anybody else's name 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.
But that person is Winfrey, a cultural force perhaps unrivaled in the world. Now, as she moves through the final months of her daytime syndicated talk show, which will end next 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's a cable-network startup packed with as-yet-unproven shows. But these shows — 600 hours of original programming airing in 2011 — are endorsed by TV's most trusted figure. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" will soon come to an 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. "OWN will be the network built on great intentions."
Sure, the path to you-know-where is paved with good intentions. But this is Oprah! "Oprah is smarter than all of us, and she has an enormous following based on absolute trust," says Bob Garfield, co-host of NPR's "On the Media."
Her influence as a newsmaker and tastemaker 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.
"I'm looking forward to her channel because she does positive things," says Andrea Visser, a 43-year-old in-home therapist from Franklin Lakes, N.J., who recently was shopping at The Oprah Store (stocked with lots of Oprah's favorite things) across the street from the Chicago studio where she tapes her daily show.
Visser, who was buying an "O"-inscribed infant's velour jogging suit for her newborn nephew, says her biggest concern is that OWN will replace the soon-to-be-defunct Discovery Health, which she watches faithfully. But she plans to give OWN a try.
"Oprah puts into words what a lot of people are feeling," Visser says admiringly.
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," says Norman. "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 programming.
And, yes, Winfrey will be logging facetime. She hosts "Master Class," which spotlights prominent people Winfrey has chosen to be profiled. She will be up-close-and-persona l 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.
"She will show up on the network in all sorts of surprising ways that are natural and organic and right," Norman says. "That's what's great about having your own cable network: You can wake up tomorrow and say, 'I want to go on and I want to do this — so let's make it happen!' She's got ideas every day."
Even as Winfrey pushes toward the finish line in Chicago, she's heavily involved in her Los Angeles-based network, Norman says.
"She's seen every show that we're creating; she's seen all the ad campaigns." When the network's logo was redesigned, says Norman, "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," says Norman, "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 at 12 noon Eastern time on Jan. 1. Or, expressed more vividly: 1-1-11.
Getting there has been a long, sometimes rocky, and expensive road, with $189 million reportedly invested by Discovery since the network was announced in January 2008.
Norman, formerly president of MTV, arrived in January 2009. 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 programming is not going to succeed just because Oprah Winfrey is behind it," says media analyst Steve Sternberg. "The question is, how good is the programming? 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," says veteran producer and network boss Garth Ancier. "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," says Norman. "Not everything is going to work. There are things we're going to have to retool, and we're going to have to be incredibly nimble."
But time is on OWN's side in a way rare for a television venture. Norman points to sponsoring partners including General Motors, Kohl's Department Stores and Procter & Gamble that are signed for three-year deals.
"We're all in this together," she says.
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 demo 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 2011.
"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 "On the Media" host Bob 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 declares, 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."
OWN is a joint venture between Harpo Inc. and Discovery Communications.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org.
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