Stranger in a strange land: male TV critic spends a morning with Oprah's OWN channel
Imagine the horror of arriving, captive in an alien land, where the natural laws of life and society are turned upside down. And your sensibilities are among the least considered, least valued thoughts in the universe.
That is what it feels like. For a man to spend a day with talk show star Oprah Winfrey’s new female-centered cable kingdom, the OWN network.
On Tuesday, the newest brainchild from the Queen of All Media will celebrate its first month on air. And it has been an uneven transition; despite opening big with an average 583,000 people watching prime time the first week, rating have since declined to levels more like those notched by the channel OWN replaced, Discovery Health.
Among women aged 25 to 54, Winfrey’s core fanbase and a sweet spot for advertisers, viewership over an average day dropped 43 percent over four weeks to 49,000 in the week of Jan. 22. In prime time, viewers that age fell 54 percent over the same time frame, down to 82,000, according to figures from The Nielsen Co.
Last Wednesday, I parachuted into this strange land of makeovers and oversharing to discover why so many moved this new network off their list of favorite things. If I get a few tips on manscaping along the way, even better.
8 a.m. — After starting the day with Matt, Meredith and Al on NBC’s the Today show — Don’t judge! — I flip to OWN expecting an awesome dose of Oprah’s Live Your Best Life spirit. I get a rerun of Dr. Phil. Followed by a really old rerun of Trading Spaces. (host Paige Davis may have actually been wearing shoulder pads!) I realize one of the biggest problems with the Oprah Winfrey Network is a decided lack of Oprah. (OWN may realize a few of these weaknesses, shifting its schedule a bit by debuting two more new shows in February)
10 a.m. — OWN provides the next best thing to Oprah, her best buddy and watered down doppelganger Gayle King, multitasking a daystarter show for cable TV simulcast on Sirus XM satellite radio. I give the OWN crew credit; they ditch the headphones and broadcast equipment cluttering other radio/TV hybrids (somebody alert Imus!) mixing up satellite interviews, video clips and in-studio talks to give King’s show a broader feel. But it’s also clear why Oprah’s not threatened by Gayle — she doesn't’t have half the Queen’s onscreen charisma — and the big black microphones needed for clear radio audio still look kinda clunky on TV.
11:15 a.m. — Oprah appears in an “interstitial” commercial thanking fans for the channel’s great debut. I realize some of OWN’s most compelling programming is commercials for all the series we won’t see for weeks from Sarah Ferguson, Shania Twain and the Judds. I also wonder why other interstitials feature men like Dr. Oz and her magazine’s creative director telling women how to look and feel better.
12 p.m. — A rerun of Oprah’s Masterclass with rap star Jay-Z, mostly featuring him telling the camera why he is da bomb (O drops in occasionally as narrator to remind us why he’s right). Hova always surprises non-fans with his intellect and sophistication — well, he did co-write 99 Problems (But a B---- Ain’t One) — and I begin to wonder when Oprah reversed her disdain for rap. Perhaps when her ratings started skewing older? Rowr!
12:30 p.m. — I use my DVR to call up a pre-recorded episode of Your OWN Show, an unreality show featuring 10 hopefuls trying to win a hosting gig. Helmed by Apprentice creator Mark Burnett, it’s like an episode of Trump’s show arranged by Oprah’s loopiest fans, with a dollop of Project Runway’s group judging spirit. Most of the contestants are so oddly untelegenic, you wonder what they’ll do if one of these goofballs actually wins. Then you see the judging by professional clothes hangers/hosts Carson Kressley and Nancy O’Dell with guest Arsenio Hall (that’s where he’s been!) and you realize the Queen is pulling strings from afar. All is secure.
1 p.m. — I give up, daunted by a long stretch of Mystery Diagnosis shows ahead. It’s obvious this first month has been about setting the stage for the Queen, who is still distracted boosting ratings with long-lost sisters on her mothership syndicated show’s final season.
Even handicapped by my Y chromosome, I see in the distance an awesome TV home for women who love Oprah’s blend of enlightened materialism, self-improvement and celebrity worship. Wonder when she’ll debut that channel?