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OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network launches with high expectations

December 30, 2010 | 11:21 am


Soon it will be time to measure the Oprah bounce.

On Saturday, a switch will be flipped and OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network will be available in nearly 85 million homes.  It is the most highly anticipated launch of a cable channel in more than a decade, in large part because of the pedigree of its founders. Discovery Communications, Winfrey’s partner in the venture, has contributed channel space and has paid more than $110 million in start-up costs.  Winfrey too has much riding on the channel’s success.  She lent her name, website and programming vision, realizing the results will help shape her legacy. 

The television industry has been eager to see whether the power of Winfrey — she can drive sales of books, candles and other products with a mere mention on her show — will translate into throngs of viewers flocking to her cable channel.

Winfrey hesitated before moving forward with OWN.  In O Magazine, she wrote that she was initially fearful that she would not be able to “duplicate what I’ve done” with “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and that gave her pause.  She eventually came to terms with the cable channel not necessarily being a way to create a “new phenomena” but instead as an opportunity to continue doing what she loves. And she knew, after 25 years, that it was time to end her daytime show. 

“In the late '80s, I stopped making television just to make television, and started making television that was going to service the viewer,” Winfrey said in a recent telephone interview.  “And that’s the foundation for this network, and that’s why I think that the network is going to work. I’m betting on myself because no one else programs this way, thinking about the viewers the way that we do.”  

Although the channel will be available in about 85% of the homes in the U.S. that have cable and satellite TV, Winfrey and Discovery have sought to tamp down expectations of a big launch. Winfrey professes to have devoted only 10% of her time to the formation of OWN.  Instead, she has been focused on the final season of her syndicated talk show, which will end production in May with its closing episode airing in September.  Nonetheless, her stamp on OWN will be apparent. 

A marquee show on the new channel will be “Oprah Presents Master Class,” a biography series showcasing Winfrey's conversations with such luminaries as Maya Angelou, Condoleezza Rice, Diane Sawyer and Simon Cowell.  Twenty-five episodes of “Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes” will follow the making of the final season of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”  Personalities nurtured by Winfrey, including Phil McGraw and Dr. Mehmet Oz, will be featured in prime time.  Winfrey herself encouraged the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, to participate in a six-episode documentary series called “Finding Sarah,” which, according to OWN, will explore Ferguson’s “lifelong battles with weight, relationships and finances.”

Winfrey said she is not worried about the ratings produced by shows during the channel’s first few months — despite the harsh glare of the spotlight.

“We will make adjustments as we go along,” she said.  “It’s only going to get better.”

She is ready for pointed critiques and second-guessing that comes with being part of such a high-profile enterprise.

“You know that you are not going to satisfy everyone, but that’s what maturity does for you,” Winfrey said.  “I am really prepared for all of the criticism, all of the snarky `could’ve' and `should’ves.'  But that doesn’t matter. This launch is the birthing of my baby, it’s not the raising of the baby, and that’s the important part.”

Besides, she has had experience getting crushed by the less-than-hoped-for results of an opening weekend.

Winfrey said she was devastated after the October 1998 release of the film “Beloved.”  In its premiere weekend, Winfrey’s pet project about a former slave, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Toni Morrison, came in third at the box office, behind the Sandra Bullock film “Practical Magic” and “Bride of Chucky.”  

The horror of watching her movie, directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Winfrey, being trumped by an evil scarface doll sent her into a depression and eating binge.   

“I’m not going to go into a macaroni-and-cheese tailspin again,” Winfrey said. “This is about having a vision about something that’s bigger than yourself.”

— Meg James

Photo: Oprah Winfrey this month taping her show in Australia. Credit: David Crosling /Associated Press.