Critic’s Notebook: Oprah Winfrey quickly makes her new network her own
You have to love a woman who says she’s chosen a “slow roll-out” for her new television network and then promptly goes head-to-head with the Rose Parade to begin it. But that admirable and infuriating mixture of humility and hubris is precisely what has made Oprah Winfrey one of most culturally influential people of her time. Her latest project, the Oprah Winfrey Network (convenient acronym, OWN), debuted Jan. 1 on the West Coast , and though it is in its early days, OWN promises to hum with the same signature ability to hold two (or three or 11) opposing ideas simultaneously that has made Winfrey a media baron.
Every person has a story and every story is worth hearing is the essential, if not official, slogan of Oprah’s revolution, her mantra ever since she followed Phil Donahue off the stage into the anecdotal swarm of the studio audience, eventually taking television, publishing, journalism and swaths of academe with her. Oprah went even farther than Donahue or any of the copy cat-hosts that followed, threading her personal narrative through and around the histories and concerns of her guests and audience, creating an image of such real and unapologetic contradiction — the powerful billionaire who is just like you and me — that she may well become the historical symbol of these odd boom-bust years straddling two millennia.
Viewers had been warned in the preceding days that OWN will not be a 24-hour visit with Winfrey, that her iconic show isn’t moving, in whatever new form it will take, until spring. But on Day One, Winfrey was very present and accounted for, spending the first hour of the infant network reminding us how ground-breaking “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was and explaining how this new network contains a slate of shows handpicked by Winfrey in the hopes that they will continue her legacy of lifting the bar of television to help viewers live their best lives ever.
(She did it while wearing all white too, by the way, which may be the single bravest act a woman can commit in front of a television camera.)
During the first few days, programming was limited to a handful of self-improvement and inspirational shows — along with the whole celebrity versus real folk, spirituality versus consumerism conundrum, the central balancing act of the Oprah oeuvre is that we are all fabulous but also plagued by life-damaging problems. Constipation and sexless marriage, families poisoned by demanding careers and messy homes were just a few of the problems addressed in professionally graphic details on “Ask Oprah’s All-Stars,” “In the Bedroom With Dr. Laura Berman,” “Kidnapped by the Kids” and “Enough Already With Peter Walsh.” Rounding out the slate was the “Oprah Presents: Master Class,” (icons including Jay-Z and Diane Sawyer share their hard-earned wisdom) and “25 Years of Oprah: Behind the Scenes,” in which we meet the hard-working team behind the show.
It played a bit like a woman’s magazine made up solely of front and back of the book sections or the living embodiment of a bookstore’s self-help section. But then that’s how it goes with a slow roll-out, and as Winfrey made clear in recent interviews and her long intro, the good stuff is coming later in the year: Rosie O’Donnell and Gayle King will host shows, dieting (“Addicted to Food”) will continue its eternal face-off with cooking (“Bowlful of Love”) while a variety of reality shows showcasing dysfunctional celebrities promise more “journeys” than the Travel Channel. Shania Twain, Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Tatum and Ryan O’Neal and Sarah Ferguson are all searching for healing and re-connection while, Lisa Ling, correspondent for “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” promises to take us on a tour of the “real America.”
Not surprisingly, there will also be a competition reality show called “Your Own Show,” in which Oprah will eventually bestow the power of the mobile microphone on a victorious contestant, which may move us officially into whatever realm lies beyond multimedia self-reference.
If she seems to be coming late to the reality party, Oprah in many ways is reaping what she has sown. Her belief that every story is worth hearing tilled the field in which reality TV first took hold. And although there is a definite TLC flavor to early OWN, the standards, not to mention the production values, are markedly higher. Participants and expert guides seem more grounded in reality (as opposed to a desperate need to be on television) than on other shows. Yes, there will be a show about women in prison, but no polygamists need apply. Hoarders are most welcome, however.