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With OWN's new series, 'Our America,' Lisa Ling wants people to 'think differently.' Is that enough?

February 14, 2011 |  1:38 pm

Ll For Lisa Ling, the e-mails never cease. And given the name of the sender, she’s reading every one of them ... no matter when they reach her inbox.

“I always get e-mails from Oprah [Winfrey] at, like, 2 a.m.,” she said. “It just never stops.”

The late-night pings are all with good reason. Ling is helming a series on Winfrey’s new network.

“Our America,” which premieres Tuesday, examines controversial subjects: online brides, sex offenders, drug addictions and religious movements among them. The result is an hour-long episode that aims to provoke discussion through the accounts of varied experiences, Ling said.

"She wasn’t so involved with the production of the series," said Ling, who spoke via telephone from Upstate New York, where she is still working on the tail-end of the series. “But she has been so effusive about this series. I’ve definitely kept every e-mail she has sent. “

Ling, who was a co-host on “The View” from 1999-2002, has been a field correspondent for “The Oprah Show” for years, reporting on topics such as bride burning in India and child trafficking in Ghana. When murmurings about launching a full-on network began, Ling said she was approached about being a part of the endeavor.

“Even though I’ve been working in this business for over 20 years, I’ve never gotten a chance to do some really provocative programming,” Ling said. “OWN has really let me work on stories in a way that I wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else.”

She cautions, though, that there is no agenda to what she presents in the documentary anthology.

“I really want people to think differently about these topics or these issues or these people -- differently than they thought about before,” she added. “And to recognize -- to really sort of expand -- what the whole idea of what being an American is.”

But amid the “Teen Moms” and “The Real Housewives” -- the show’s cable competitors for its premiere episode-- is such a task feasible? 

“I think that given what else is on television, there’s a need for this on TV,” Ling said. “I don’t think audiences are offered the opportunity to have these experiences that are not sensationalized and are not being directed to the lowest common denominator. By the same token, every one of the episodes included in ‘Our America’ is as shocking and -- I keep using this word -- provocative as anything you’ll see on any other network.”

And that’s something that Winfrey said she strove for in creating her own network. During her appearance at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in January, Winfrey made it clear that ratings were secondary to the “new kind of television” she was presenting to viewers.

“A new kind of television where people would respond to the idea of something meaningful and positive in their lives,” Winfrey said. “Not just feeding them sweetness, but feeding them something that could be nurturing."

“There are a few shows [on OWN] that even if [viewers] don’t respond, I’m keeping them on anyway because I can, because I like them,” Winfrey added. “And in time, [the programs] will grow on [the audience].”

In its fifth full week, the network was down 34% compared with last week among women ages 25 to 54 in prime time (54,000 vs. 82,000).

In the first episode of “Our America,” Ling visits a faith-healing revival in Fort Mill, S.C., to meet with people seeking cures from faith healer Todd Bentley.

“I was very, very skeptical,” Ling said. “But let's just say that what happened in the end was so shocking to me that it provoked me to think differently about the whole idea of faith. It really changed my notion of faith forever.”

Show Trackers, will you be tuning-in?

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--Yvonne Villarreal

Photo: Lisa Ling, host of "Our America with Lisa Ling" on Oprah Winfrey's new network. Credit: Jamie Cary / OWN