Here's the big problem with Oprah Winfrey's OWN cable channel:
There's still too much Oprah to go around.
The talk show queen has seen ratings for her syndicated show — powering toward a huge May 25 finale — build as fans line up for their last, jolting dose of Winfrey's full-throated magic (pay special attention to her show Thursday, featuring USF St. Petersburg professor Ray Arsenault's Freedom Riders book and film).
But viewership for OWN has headed in the other direction, despite a much-hyped Jan. 1 debut that drew an average 1 million viewers in its first week.
The week of April 18, OWN drew an average of just 127,000 viewers across its broadcast day, with 52,000 viewers among women aged 25 to 54. In prime time hours during the same week, the average jumped to 216,000 people, with 78,000 in her core audience of women aged 25 to 54.
That's all compared with an average 6.3 million who watched the syndicated Oprah show each day that week. My theory: Fans are still lining up for the familiar show they know, not yet ready to spend much time with a cable channel they don't.
Clearly, it's time for Winfrey to reboot OWN.
A little of that starts Sunday, with the debut of Shania Twain's Why Not?, an unscripted series supposedly detailing the onetime pop star's struggle to overcome crippling stage fright and return to performing.
The dramatic backdrop: Twain is also recovering from a painfully public scandal where her superstar producer and husband Robert "Mutt" Lange left her, then revealed he was having an affair with her best friend. (She, naturally, began dating the best friend's now ex-husband).
Two days after Twain's debut, at 9 p.m. May 10, OWN unveils Becoming Chaz, a surprisingly intimate documentary about Chastity Bono's decision to get a sex change and begin living as a man — even as her rock star mom (and gay icon) Cher struggled to understand and accept her choices.
After the film, Rosie O'Donnell (whose OWN talk debuts this fall) will host a discussion of the issues at 10:30 p.m.
As someone who has seen most of the shows already, I can say there's lot of hit and miss in OWN; something we're not used to seeing from the Queen of All Media.
Here's a little blueprint for what's working and not:
This documentary has two things you rarely see in so-called reality TV: an unsparing look at the subject's worst moments, and an intimacy that leaves few corners of the experience unexplored. More shows like this will make OWN a destination for insightful, honest programming about gender, race and sex.
The Judds, Shania Twain
Nobody feels sorry for multimillionaire celebrities stuck on the crazy train. Watching clips of Twain singing before thousands of fans, only to freak out rehearsing in an empty hall, just makes you wonder if she's a bit too pampered and precious. Ditto with Naomi and Wynonna Judd, whose off-the-hook neuroses could fill a couple of doctoral dissertations (their unscripted show about trying to organize a reunion tour airs at 10 p.m. Sundays). Both shows wear out their welcomes quickly, leaving you exasperated with the subjects instead of sympathetic.
Winfrey and her top staffers have tried to build interest in the channel's best-performing show, Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes, by posting messages on Twitter throughout the show. For fans who want nothing more than the bask in her presence, this is the next best thing to hanging with O during a screening.
OWN's new stars
None of the stars Winfrey developed in her show's heyday have new series on the channel. So figures like organizational expert Peter Walsh, sex therapist Laura Berman, cook Cristina Ferrare and ever-present pal Gayle King aren't getting traction. Time to brainstorm some way to shoehorn new appearances by Dr. Phil, Suze Orman and Dr. Oz onto the channel before fans lose patience.
Because avatars in a virtual world need sex products too
Even in a state known for its strip clubs and porn industry, Lutz business man Kevin Alderman stands out.
Known as the Hugh Hefner of the virtual world, the happily married father earns a six-figure income selling sex products in the virtual community Second Life.
So it's small wonder, then, that the National Geographic Channel sought him out for its series Taboo: Fantasy Lives, airing at 10 tonight.
What exactly do you provide online?
We've pretty much duplicated the Kama Sutra. The most popular design is a simple bed (with built-in sex position animations). But if you can think it, we can build it.
Why is your lifestyle taboo?
Having virtual sex with partners (making the avatars engage in sex) while I'm married offline. In the real world, I would break Gene Simmons' record for sex partners … thousands, if not tens of thousands of people. I do all kinds of market research.
You have a virtual wife and kids separate from your offline family. Doesn't your wife think it's a form of cheating?
If this were cheating, I'd be committing adultery every time I looked at a Penthouse magazine.
If you have a strong relationship, you don't have to worry; I could cheat with my secretary easily as I could cheat with an avatar.