When Maryland-based Discovery Communications and Oprah Winfrey announced a partnership in 2009 to launch Winfrey's OWN cable channel, it immediately vaulted the Silver Spring media operation into a new league.
Oprah's move to Discovery was the talk of the entertainment industry, and within hours of the announcement, J.P. Morgan was circulating a financial analysis titled "Much Ado About Oprah."
"Discovery appears to be the winner in this announcement," the Morgan analysis said. "However, the extent of Ms. Winfrey's on-air involvement is still to be determined."
As OWN prepares to launch at noon Jan. 1 and some of its prime programs are made available for preview, that largely overlooked cautionary line about the "extent of Ms. Winfrey's on-air involvement" looms large. While OWN is being portrayed in some news reports as "Oprah 24/7," viewers tuning in on New Year's Day are going to find a different reality. (Robin Layton, Handout Photo Dec. 23, 2010)
The only show in the preview package that offers Winfrey in any kind of on-air role is "Oprah Presents Master Class," which at this point consists of eight one-hour profile/interviews of celebrities, including Jay-Z, Diane Sawyer, Simon Cowell and Maya Angelou.
Winfrey introduces each hour and appears on-screen after commercial breaks to offer 30 seconds or so of biography or analysis as to what viewers should be paying attention to — like a professor showing a film. She does not — repeat not — conduct the interviews. And that's a shame, since Winfrey, who got her talk-show start at Baltimore's WJZ-TV in 1976, is one of the medium's best interviewers.
"That's the danger with this whole, high-priced, risky venture for Discovery," says University of Maryland media economist Douglas Gomery. "How much Oprah are viewers really going to get? Having Oprah's name on the channel immediately cuts through the cable channel clutter. Short term, that's good news for OWN. But if you can't deliver her face and presence on-screen on a regular basis in meaningful programs, you are going to find yourself back with the clutter in a hurry. And long term, that could prove to be a very expensive piece of bad news for her business partners at Discovery."
While acknowledging Winfrey's place in American cultural life, Gomery adds, "Don't forget, Oprah tried this concept once before with the channel that failed and is now known as Oxygen, so she's 0-for-1. Right now, what we mostly have is speculation and hype — and not much real information about the channel."
There is some confusion as to where viewers can find OWN on their channel lineup. While some articles about the launch have speculated that OWN's location on the "upper reaches of the cable dial" could make it harder for Winfrey's fans to find it, OWN has a good location in the Baltimore and Mid-Atlantic area served primarily by Comcast.
OWN will be on Channel 41 in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, according to a Comcast spokeswoman. That is the lineup spot currently occupied by Discovery Health. OWN will replace Discovery Health in the cable lineup on Jan. 1 with the flip of a switch in Silver Spring, which will allow it to launch in 80 million homes. OWN enjoys a similarly favorable position on the cable dial in the Washington and Arlington, Va., areas.
The danger OWN faces is not so much one of channel location as it is viewers who tune in next month for the first time and find, rather than lots of Winfrey, the kind of standard basic cable fare that might be seen on Bravo, Style, A&E or some of the other Discovery-owned channels.
Viewers are likely to be impressed Jan. 1 and Jan. 2, for example, with the debut of "Oprah Presents Master Class" featuring hourlong profile/interviews of music mogul Jay-Z and ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer. Both are accomplished and compelling figures. (The Jay-Z profile airs at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Jan. 1, while the Sawyer hour airs at 10 p.m. Jan. 2.)
Each skillfully produced and edited hour will open with Winfrey, and viewers will see her welcome them back after each commercial break. But that's as Oprah-licious as OWN gets. The interviews are shot so that no interviewer is seen or heard. It's as if Jay-Z and Sawyer are talking directly to the camera.
More typical of the preview package, which the network describes as "representative of the original new programming coming to OWN this January and beyond," is "Enough Already with Peter Walsh." This boilerplate reality TV series makes it debut Jan. 1 at 3 p.m.
Walsh is an "acclaimed organizational and clutter expert," according to OWN, who helps families "get rid of the overwhelming clutter that is taking over" their homes.
The pilot, which features a mother whose junk is a danger to her infant son, brings nothing new to a genre that has already been all but exhausted on BBC America, Style and A&E with such reality series as "Clean House," "How Clean is Your House," "Hoarders" — and even "Hoarding: Buried Alive," which is carried on Discovery's downscale sister channel, TLC.
"Kidnapped By The Kids," which does not have a premiere date, leans on the big Winfrey word "empowered." "In this series, the kids are empowered to stand up to their workaholic parent and make a difference," press kit says.
The pilot features an overworked dad who is "kidnapped" by his wife and kids as he's about to board a plane for a week's worth of out-of-town work as a consultant. The "kidnapping" (the show's word, not mine) is as staged and reality-TV artificial as anything I have seen on the worst of such shows featuring families under emotional strain.
An episode of "Our America with Lisa Ling" was also made available for preview. Ling, whose resume includes stints at Channel One, ABC's "The View" and National Geographic, reports on faith healers in South Carolina in the pilot.
Here's how Ling describes the nonfiction series in voice-over at the start of the pilot: "America. It can be inspiring and beautiful. It can also be dark and ugly. It's so many things. But it's ours. It's our America."
To me, that sounds like an unfocused series — and that is exactly what the pilot feels like. But it's only one episode. Maybe the series will find a sharper focus and demand more from Ling and her producers in coming months.
But more than anything else, OWN is going to need more Winfrey in real programs, not just cut-in appearances and promotional imagery — and sooner rather than sometime late next year, after her daily show ends its run in syndication at the end of May.
A New Year's prediction: The success or failure of this channel will be in direct proportion to Oprah Winfrey's presence. And right now, that doesn't look like very much.