Oprah Winfrey's OWN channel: Can the Queen of All Media rule cable as well?
In just 24 hours, the biggest star on television will begin the biggest gamble in the TV industry.
That's when Oprah Winfrey flips the switch and turns the Discovery Health Channel into OWN -- a cable-sized version of her brand spread out over a 24-hour/7days a week programming schedule.
In a way, this move makes all kind of sense. Winfrey needed to leave the sinking ship that is the syndicated TV business before her brand got too damaged to launch a new platform (Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, this could have been you). After trying movies, a taste of the network TV business, magazines and radio, the only mass media platform she hadn't really tackled was cable TV.
My story dissecting Winfrey's move ran on the front page of the Times Thursday, noting that, despite a high profile kickoff lineup of preview shows this weekend, the most anticipated shows on Winfrey's new channel won't debut until deeper in 2011. Buzzed-about series from Shania Twain, Wynonna and Naomi Judd, Sarah Ferguson, Rosie O'Donnell and Tatum and Ryan O'Neal don't surface for months -- which may be a problem for a new network, evenone backed by the power of O and about $150-million of Discovery Channel's money.
Instead, OWN's early slate of programs include lots of unscriptped fare -- an de-cluttering show from organizational expert Peter Walsh, a sex advice show from Laura Berman and a cooking show with supermodel Christina Ferrare.
Winfrey's already been hyping the start of the network on her syndicated show, exciting fans with preview footage and shows featuring stars from her partenrs at Discovery Channel. And there's a strong lineup of preview show scheduled this weeklend -- giving her middle aged female fan base a serious alternative to all the bowl games and sports which usually clutter TV on New Year's weekend.
I'll be appearing on CNN at 10 a.m. this morning to talk more about the new venture. To prepare you for that, look below to see an edited transcript of my interview with OWN's CEO, former MTV president Christina Norman.
Deggans: What is Oprah’s vision for OWN and how is it a reflection of Oprah taking her brand from what we’re used to – syndicated television – and bringing it to cable?
N: You know, I think that Oprah’s vision’s always been the same thing. I mean, she’s called herself a teacher. You know, her vision is to create this environment 24 hours a day where she can do what she’s done on the Oprah Winfrey Show for one hour a day across a bigger spectrum. So, this network is all about helping people live their best lives, giving them the tools to live their best lives – as she’s often said, bringing some light into their lives. And, you know, again that’s really a great extension of everything that she’s done on the Oprah Winfrey Show for the past 25 years. What cable affords is a bigger playground, much more, many more hours of television to program, which we’ve done with some shows that I think are compelling and inspiring and entertaining.
D: So, how do you take those ideals that you’ve articulated and turn that into sort of concrete shows that people can actually watch?
N: Well, we’ve done it. I mean, you know, we’re launching with our Jan. 1 is a pretty impressive slate of original programs for prime times, strip programs for daytime that really do capture a variety of themes. So we’ve got Gayle King Live in the morning. You know, we’re live – it’s the only live show on OWN right now. But, you know, whatever you’re talking about, Gayle’s gonna be talking about.
D: And is that a simulcast of her (satellite) radio show or is that something totally different?
N: It is a simulcast of her radio show, but we’re actually making it for television, if that makes any sense...We’re building a studio for Gayle. The experience of watching it, you know … it has to be TV so we’re investing into upgrading that so that when the audience tunes in, it’s beautiful as well as interesting to listen to.
N: And then we’ve got a lot of people that the world has met through the Oprah Winfrey Show. So people like Laura Berman and Peter Walsh; they each have shows on OWN. We’ve done a great twist with them. So, in the case of Laura Berman’s show, you know, she’s a great sex therapist. She’s given advice for years. She does it on the radio right now. We decided to get her out from behind the desk and put her into people’s lives, so she’s literally going into the bedroom. The show’s called In the Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman and, you know, she’s helping couples address their intimacy issues – and really, in so many ways, their relationship issues. Peter Walsh, the organizational expert …
You know, I think what makes Peter so great is that it’s not just about cleaning out the clutter in your place, it’s about why’d you get there? What’s the corner in your head that’s sort of caused you to get here? And what are we gonna do together so that we don’t go back to that place? Lisa Ling? has a fantastic documentary series that’s gonna premiere on OWN where she’s really exploring some parts of American culture that I don’t think people have done before. One of our episodes, she goes to a faith-healing convention and she’s, you know, talking with faith healers and with the people who are attending it. We also have a great episode on transgender people at various stages of their reassignment, from the revelation of 'wow, I might be different,' to 'okay, I’m gonna do something about it.' And these are things that people are really interested in but no one really wants to … no one’s really done some great exploration of them, and Lisa’s the perfect person to do it.
We’ve got some great shows with Oprah, of course, starting when the audience tunes in on Jan. 1. They’re gonna want to know where’s Oprah, and she’s front and center. So Season 25, Oprah behind the scenes, premiere right away on Jan. 1 at 8 o’clock. We’re premiering two episodes back to back, and that is the real deal. I mean, she has thrown open the doors to Harpo and it is … what it takes to make that show. Harpo’s like a small city and just to see what the staff goes through every day, to make it look so easy on TV … that’s a weekly series. We’ve got 25 episodes of that. Oprah’s got a great series that she’s cheerleaded and created called Master Class, Oprah Presents Master Class, and she’s picked people who she believes have led lives that have lessons in them for all of us, and it is a chance to hear from them, their life lessons. For our first season of Master Class, there’s Sidney Poitier, Maya Angelou, Lorne Michaels, Simon Cowell, Jay-Z, Diane Sawyer and Condoleezza Rice and, of course, Oprah herself.
D: Now, is she going to host that show or …
N: She presents that show, so she has commentary in each segment about what you’re hearing from the individual but the real premise of the show, the real opportunity of the show is to give a platform to hear from that person directly. So it was really important that it not be with the interviewer interpretation but it’s a chance for them to speak honestly, directly, from the heart to the viewer.
D: Is there gonna be a show that she hosts herself that is any sort of iteration or progression from the syndicated show?
N: Oprah’s widely reported the Oprah Winfrey Show comes to an end at the end of Season 25 in May and she’s going to be bringing a new idea to OWN that right now we’re calling Oprah’s Next Chapter. And she’s thinking about what that show’s gonna be now but it’s a chance for her to take some of the things that she’s done on the Oprah Winfrey Show and take ‘em out of the studio and bring them to the rest of the world so, you know, Oprah’s in Australia right now. As a matter of fact, I just spoke with her. But, you know, she hasn’t been a lot of places ‘cause she’s been sitting in Chicago doing the Oprah Winfrey Show for 25 years, but she really wants to, as she said, get out from the chairs and see the world and bring along some of her friends and people that she wants to talk to on that experience. So let’s say she goes to China and she’ll bring along the celebrity interview that she’s gonna do or the guest that she’s gonna do, and they’ll do it in China – or Egypt or so many places.
D: Is there a timeframe for when that would debut?
N: We’re looking at late 2011, essentially early 2012 for that show to hit the air, so Oprah’s talk show goes off the air in May of 2011 and we’ll get started working on Oprah’s Next Chapter.
D: Now, is there any concern that the signature shows that we’ve kinda heard about – the Rosie O’Donnell Show, the Sarah Ferguson Show – you know, we won’t see those for quite a while.
N: Not so true. Rosie O’Donnell is for September. It was always planned to be in September. Also in September is when we get the Library of the Oprah Winfrey Show and Oprah’s vision for the library is not to just pick up the shows and air them as they were but to really look at freshening them up, to do some, you know, look-backs, some where-are-they-nows and kind of ways to really put those shows in context rather than just air, you know, December 8, 1988, again. So we’ve got that and we’ve got Rosie’s show in September. Sarah Ferguson will be earlier. Shania Twain will be earlier. Those will be like … Shania’s now scheduled to be in the second quarter, I believe.
D: You know, that’s great but, like I said, there’ll still be a month or two or three before we start to see those and we won’t see Rosie’s show for nine months after the channel debuts. Are you concerned about debuting the channel when so many of the shows that people have heard about as being sort of the big gets won’t debut for months?
N: That’s just not true. Oprah’s (Behind the Scenes) show premieres Jan. 1, Gayle’s show premieres Jan. 3 (it has since been moved to Jan. 10), Peter Walsh and Laura Berman premiere Jan. 3. What I think I’ll just add to that is we’re not changing television on Day One...we’ve got an opportunity, a golden opportunity, to deliver from Day One what the audience wants to see. They wanna see Oprah, and they will. They will see her weekly in a brand new series that is exclusive to OWN. They want to see those people that Oprah has nurtured on the way. They will see them. They wanna see something new and fresh from her, and we’ve got a competition reality series called Your Own Show, produced for us by Mark Burnett where someone is gonna get their show. So in that tradition of Oprah making dreams come true, Oprah’s gonna make somebody’s dream come true. She also appears in that show. So what’s really exciting to me is that what people are gonna see is a lot of new – on Day One.
D: You guys don’t necessarily have top of mind, you know, changing television but just by virtue of Oprah taking her brand to cable and spreading it over a 24-hour day, she is changing television.
N: For sure, and that influence was built over 25 years so I do think that, you know, what they said … it’s important for us to deliver from Day One, Oprah, the people she’s nurtured, big dreams come true, a look at the world in a different way than you’re used to – all those things will be there on Day One. But I also think our job is to build this network over time for it to be as lasting as the Oprah Winfrey Show has been. You know, we’re building the Oprah Winfrey network, not Oprah TV. So, yes, a lot of things are key to her. She is the curator of this experience for the viewer, and it will unfold. It continues to unfold. I mean, with Sarah Ferguson coming in … maybe in the first quarter. With Shania coming in the second quarter, with the Judds coming in the third quarter, with the O’Neills coming in the fourth quarter – all of those series will be rolling out over the course of the year as … you know, introducing our audience to the concepts that OWN is presenting and the different kinds of faces and stories that we’re gonna be telling here.
D: Do you have a sense about how launching a channel that is built around a person is different than, you know, watching something like USA or TNT or something where it’s more like a concept, it’s more like an attitude rather than a person?
N: There’s nobody else like Oprah Winfrey. So I can’t imagine what there is to compare this to but, that said, it is about the ideals that she stands for. You know, we’re not making Oprah TV, we’re making the Oprah Winfrey Network, 24 hours. It is an extension of everything she’s done – that 24 hours of her. And just like you were saying, at CNN or any of those other networks, they have a brand. They know what fits their brand and where they want to go and what kind of shows work for them based on that and what kind of shows don’t. And we’re no different, and our slate, I think, is really reflective of the brand that – I hate referring to her as a brand ‘cause she’s a person – but, you know, of the brand that Oprah’s built.
D: Well, she’s both.