Oprah Winfrey shows TV critics the big guns she'll use to save OWN: Rosie O'Donnell and herself
LOS ANGELES -- As the snarky stories pile up about the Oprah Winfrey Network's sagging ratings and lackluster programming, the channel's star and namesake faced a roomful of TV critics Friday with a powerful message.
I got this.
"I can tell you now, I am officially in," said Oprah Winfrey, facing journalists here at the TV Critics Association's summer press tour for the first time as newly-crowned CEO of OWN. ""I get emails from friends regularly saying...'I hope you're enjoying your time in the Mediterranean or whenever,' and I'm not. I'm here in the office of OWN, listening to budget meetings and marketing meetings and talking about how to strategize and make this network everything we know it can be to fulfill the potential of the vision."
Critics know there are two things Winfrey's network has lacked most: Her presence as star and chief creative visionary, and blockbuster programming that will draw more than the most devoted Oprah-heads.
Even as she assured critics she was now "focusing on the unity of (her production company) HARPO and OWN" -- announcing plans to reformat the more than 4,500 episodes from her blockbuster daytime syndicated show into a learning-focused program hosted by her called OWN Your Life: The Oprah Class -- Winfrey laid the responsibility for blockbuster programming at the biggest name creating an original program for her network -- onetime daytime TV goddess Rosie O'Donnell.
O'Donnell said she was literally ready to sign a deal to host a talk show with a broadcast network when she discovered her agent had not reached out to OWN as she requested. "They didn't even tell her," said O'Donnell, laughing as she compared her agent's focus on making the most money to the old parable about the frog and the scorpion. "It was also right at the time when NBC had thrown Conan under the bus, so my desire to attach to a major corporation that had just taken 15 years of service and treated it as if it was nothing was also a huge factor in me not signing."
According to O'Donnell, her new show will feature one celebrity in each 60-minute program, going in-depth with them, along with behind-the-scenes material and comedic openings featuring her considerable humor chops. The final segment might be a fun game featuring audience members interacting with the celebrity of the day -- with prizes provided by sponsors she finds fit the moment. O'Donnell also mentioned comic Russell Brand and singer Adele as possible guests.
"People are no longer looking for that polished veneer fake Hollywood illusion," she said, speaking on social media's impact on talk shows and celebrity. "They know the gritty underbelly of the reality world...(Years ago) Zsa Zsa Gabor and Eva were held up and everybody was kept away from them...They were these gorgeous, exotic creatures. Paris Hilton would have been that if it was years ago. But now she's the girl with the sex tape and a reality show and often no underwear."
Earlier, in lamenting the death of TV soap operas, she noted: "In 1995-96, there was no Paris Hilton, there was no Twitter, there was no social media. Kids now expect to have access to their celebrity in whatever manner they think is real...There's an access for them that has changed the way we consume celebrity and deal with it."
O'Donnell also hinted at her biggest challenge -- when her show was successful in the mid-'90s, she was a widely-liked surrogate for the audience; someone they might want to befriend. But as critics wonder whether her combative time on The View and public feuds with Donald Trump may have worn out that welcome, the star assured her audience Friday that was not the case.
"If I'm at a table with famous people eating dinner, invariably four or five people will come over to me as if I'm the easy pass lane," she said, laughing. "They think I am the access. I am really more the audience than I ever was. Nobody is at home saying' God if I could only be Rosie O'Donnell -- an overweight lesbian who yells too much."
As a longtime advocate for children's issues, she also had choice words about media coverage following the acquittal of the Orlando-area mom accused of murdering her two-year-old child, Casey Anthony. "I don't really understand why the media and the nation focused on this one child, when there are so many children killed and tortured every day," O'Donnell said. "I don't know why this one became the kind of news driver that it did, and I would like to approach that from a sociological or an anthropological point of view as to why we, as a culture, consume media in the way that we do."
O'Donnell , who moved to Chicago from Miami for the show, said she only began seriously working on formatting for the show in July, after Winfrey's HARPO producers had fully finished her syndicated show's final episodes. That Winfrey has put the folks who made her blockbuster show to work crafting O'Donnell's show says something important -- there is little doubt how much the success of the comic's return to daytime means for the future of OWN.
And no one knows that better than O'Donnell herself. "Listen, I have to tell you, I'm still nervous when she calls," the comic told TV critics, right after dishing on how she spent long minutes accusing her friend (and reality TV star) Ruby of pretending to be Winfrey during a recent late-night phone call before realizing it really was the Queen of All Media.
"Like, backstage (today) they're saying 'Oprah's backstage. Shes come in from Hawaii to introduce you.' There's a moment when I walk in and go 'Get your shit together O'Donnell. It's Winfrey. Kick it up a notch.'"