We soon may witness the biggest gamble in modern television.
And it all starts Saturday, when a switch flips, turning the Discovery Health Channel into the Oprah Winfrey Network.
It's likely the first time a 24-hour cable channel has focused on one person's brand; the culmination of more than $160 million in funding and years of effort. Some media analysts expect Winfrey's moves, win or lose, to redefine the shape of television, a prospect network CEO Christine Norman downplays even while acknowledging some may see it differently.
"We're not changing television on Day One," said Norman, a 17-year veteran of MTV hired in February 2009 to help lead Winfrey's ambitious transition to cable. "Our job is to build this network over time to be as lasting as the Oprah Winfrey Show."
How exactly do you convert an hourlong syndicated TV show into a cable channel pumping out 1,200 hours of programming each year? A glance at OWN's schedule for the next few weeks reveals a few clues.
There's Winfrey's longtime galpal Gayle King, hosting a live one-hour show simulcast on satellite radio at 10 a.m. every weekday, starting Jan. 10. There are lifestyle experts: spokesmodel/chef Christina Ferrare, personal organizer Peter Walsh and sex therapist Laura Berman.
Superstar pals boosted by Winfrey's show, such as Suze Orman and Dr. Oz, surface in a special called Ask Oprah's All Stars, while Dr. Phil McGraw's syndicated show airs in reruns at 8 a.m., 7 p.m. and 11 p.m.
Winfrey herself shows up in a 25-episode unscripted show recapping her syndicated program's final season (Oprah Behind the Scenes); a series with celebrities detailing their life lessons (Masterclass); and her reality competition show featuring contestants vying to host a series on the channel (Your OWN Show). But there's no version of her current smash talk show, which stops broadcasting new episodes in May and leaves syndication for good in September.
It all kicks off with a weekend cavalcade of previews starting at noon Saturday and culminating with the debut of Ask Oprah's All Stars at 8 p.m. Sunday.
Norman confidently sums up the programming mix in simple words and phrases: Aspiration. Nurturing. Newness. In short: Winfrey's fans want to see their hero helping make people's dreams come true in a new, always-on TV environment.
But observers note the channel's early shows are also a low-cost, heady blend of Winfrey's biggest, sometimes-conflicting touch points: celebrity pals, personal empowerment, material luxury and extensive corporate alliances — all aimed at the beating heart of her core audience of wealthy white women.
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Critics note some of Winfrey's biggest protégés, such as Oz, Orman, Nate Berkus and Rachael Ray, still seem to have only a cursory representation on the channel (likely because they have their own TV deals to fulfill). Buzzed-about shows from Rosie O'Donnell, Ryan and Tatum O'Neal, Naomi and Wynona Judd, Sarah Ferguson and Shania Twain won't appear for months; even reruns of Winfrey's syndicated show won't be available until late in 2011, with her own signature show, Oprah's Next Chapter, also surfacing sometime late in the year or in early 2012.
University of Colorado professor Janice Peck, author of a booklong examination of Winfrey's cultural impact dubbed The Age of Oprah, says the mogul "has everything riding on" this newest transition.
That's because Winfrey's media empire has grown from a simple premise: Take the core product — her life philosophy, basically — and replicate it on new platforms, using her popular syndicated TV show to drive fans toward it, Peck said. CNBC called it "The Oprah Effect," a Midas touch benefiting everything from O magazine to the candidacy of our first black president.
But what happens when the linchpin of that strategy is gone?
"The Oprah show is the sun; the thing around which all these other satellites are spun," Peck said. "I still wonder: Can the Oprah universe work without that show?"
Peck noted it is a crucial time for Winfrey, a black woman raised in poverty who has somehow become the voice for a generation of middle-aged white women, now growing older. Her appeal to younger viewers is tenuous (hence, the OWN anthem written by pop star Will.i.am). Now she's debuting a cable channel packed with new programming in a market where most new TV products fail.
One similar media icon, homestyle guru Martha Stewart, already is struggling for viewers after launching an eight-hour block of shows on the Hallmark Channel. Can Winfrey, admittedly the more powerful brand, do better?
"(Winfrey) has only one message: Everything you have and do and are is a result of your attitude," Peck said. "But when we're looking at unemployment rates of 10 percent, I am not sure her message will continue to resonate."
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Award-winning Chicago media reporter Robert Feder, who has covered Winfrey's rise for more than 25 years, predicted Winfrey's "Teflon-coated" brand would survive any setback at OWN, powered by her deft ability to spin failure and relentless demands for confidentiality among her staff and creative partners.
To understand Winfrey, Feder said, you must appreciate her career's defining moment: when she formed HARPO Studios and took ownership of her show back in the mid 1980s.
"She not only became fabulously wealthy, she became accountable to no producer, no TV executive, no one else," he said. "On cable, she's taking that control to the next level; she owns the channel and everything on it. With Oprah, you never go wrong if you follow the control."
Winfrey has blamed herself for the slow, halting start of her network, which lost its first president after just 10 months, saw its start date pushed back from 2009 and faced rumors its initial slate of shows was lackluster enough to prompt the hiring of a new programming executive (which Norman denied).
Feder said such problems are typical for Winfrey's new ventures, recalling how her O magazine also floundered initially amid several executive changes. Indeed, the host often has turned sharply when facing failure, dropping a film career after her movie Beloved flopped and selling her $20-million stake in the Oxygen cable network.
Ironclad confidentiality agreements signed by all within her orbit assure that Winfrey is the loudest voice telling her own story, compounded by other media figures' fear in angering her. The result is an unparalleled ability to try any idea and spin away any failure, bolstered by a fan base eager to believe the best in their idol.
"If OWN isn't a success two things will happen: She will redefine what success is and it will morph into something else," Feder said. "For a woman who is all about truth, it is so ironic that she denies others the right to speak the truth about what they experience and observe with her."
Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected]