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With too little Oprah, OWN's ratings dip after debut

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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 channel.

On Tuesday, the newest brainchild from the Queen of All Media will celebrate its first month on air. It has been an uneven transition; despite opening big with an average 583,000 people watching prime time the first week, ratings have since declined to levels more like those notched by the channel that OWN replaced, Discovery Health.

Among women ages 25 to 54, Winfrey's core fan base and a sweet spot for advertisers, viewership over an average day dropped 43 percent in four weeks, to 49,000 the week of Jan. 22. In prime time, viewers that age fell 54 percent over the same period, down to 82,000, according to figures from the Nielsen Co.

On 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 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 actually may have been wearing shoulder pads!) I determine one of the biggest problems with the Oprah Winfrey Network is a decided lack of Oprah.

10 a.m. OWN provides the next best thing to Oprah, her best buddy and watered-down doppelganger Gayle King, multitasking a day-starter 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 have half the Queen's on-screen charisma — and the big black microphones needed for clear radio audio still look kind of clunky on TV.

10:15 a.m. Oprah appears in an "interstitial" commercial thanking fans for the channel's great debut. I discover 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.

11 a.m. A rerun of Oprah's Master Class 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 nonfans 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!

11:30 A.M. I use my DVR to call up a prerecorded 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 Donald 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 has been!) and you realize Oprah is pulling strings from afar. All is secure.

Noon I give up, daunted by a long stretch of Medical Detectives reruns 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?

With too little Oprah, OWN's ratings dip after debut 01/29/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 29, 2011 3:31am]
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