By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
3:00 PM EDT, March 12, 2012
Update 2 p.m. Monday: Preliminary Nielsen ratings say 3.5 million viewers watched Winfrey's interviews Sunday night. That is more than twice the previous high of 1.6 million for any program ever on her OWN channel. And she rated highest with the target demo of women 25 to 54. Read on for my overnight rave of Winfrey's interviewing performance. There is no reason to whine about missing Oprah's syndicated show when she is doing work like this on OWN.
Oprah Winfrey's OWN cable channel might still be underperforming, but the legendary talk TV host showed in an interview with members of Whitney Houston's family Sunday night that she can still bring it like few others on television.
While Winfrey talked to the late pop singer's brother, Gary Houston, and his wife, Patricia, who was Houston's manager and confidant, the interviewee everyone came to see Sunday was Houston's daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown.
Winfrey didn't waste any time getting to Bobbi Kristina, and once she wrapped the teenager in her arms, the feelings and revelations started to flow.
The interview was done in the home of Houston's brother, which is located in Atlanta. Winfrey was greeted warmly at the door by Patricia Houston, but after a few niceties about the home, the talk show host was asking if Bobbi Kristina was there.
Winfrey was not about to keep her prime-time audience waiting -- this is a woman who understands her audience.
Patricia explained that while Bobbi Kristina lived in the home she had shared with her mother, the 19-year-old was also spending a lot of time in her home as well -- where she and Gary could provide support.
Winfrey got right to it with Bobbi Kristina asking her how she was holding up.
"I'm doing okay," Bobbi Kristina said, "I'm doing as good as I possibly can."
The teenager was nervous and kept pushing strands of hair out of her eyes, but the nervousness seemed more a matter of being in Winfrey's presence rather than the cameras. Winfrey seemed to understand, and closed the space between them by taking Bobbi Kristina in her arms.
The moment that made the interview such a success came within the first 10 minutes when Winfrey asked if Bobbi Kristina had a "visitation" from her late mother. The talk show host added that some people think "we're crazy" for believing in "visitations," wisely creating a space for Bobbi Kristina to confide intimate details without fear of being judged or considered strange.
"I can hear her voice, you know, and spirit talking to me, telling me, 'Keep moving baby. I'm right here. I got you.' She's always with me," the teenager said.
"Yeah, 'I got you,' that's what she would say," Winfrey added, like a member of the chorus seconding and encouraging the lead singer to give more.
"I feel her pass through me all the time," Bobbi Kristina said. "The lights turn on and off, and I go, 'Mom, what're you doing?' I can still laugh with her. I can sit there and I can still talk with her."
Winfrey interviewed Patricia and Gary about Whitney Houston's last day in Beverly Hills. At first, I thought the show started with more of a tabloid feel than it needed. But as I listened to Patricia Houston answer Winfrey's questions about how the body was found, its position in the hotel bath tub and how people reacted, you know what, there was a lot of tabloid to it.
I was cheered by seeing Winfrey Sunday night. I have been a big fan since last May when I did a magazine cover story at the Sun with her, and Winfrey shared some unpleasant memories of her days at WJZ-TV. I admired her commitment to telling the truth about her life.
Like many of her fans, I was sad to see her end one of the most loved and famous shows in TV history.
But the Oprah Winfrey who made that show such a phenomenal success was on display on the OWN channel Sunday night. And I am happy to report that she hasn't lost a step. Oprah Winfrey can still bring it.
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