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OWN needs more than Band-Aid fixes

Winfrey admits to mistakes on 'CBS This Morning'

Having mostly resisted the temptation to pile on the struggling Oprah Winfrey Network, it seemed fair to watch “CBS This Morning” on Monday and hear what the channel’s namesake had to say in her and its defense.

Winfrey chose the friendliest of interviewers — Gayle King, whose resume is topped with “Oprah’s best pal,” and Charlie Rose — and even in those chummy confines, she sounded like somebody who still doesn’t fully grasp the extent of her challenge and what she’ll have to do to meet it.

Granted, she admitted to mistakes, and even said, “Had I known that it was this difficult, I might have done something else.”

She also acknowledged OWN launched prematurely, which is certainly true. In hindsight, the network has never recovered from a major tactical blunder. Winfrey should have concluded her syndicated show, then flicked the switch on OWN — and been showcased in a regular vehicle there — the following Monday. Instead, her protracted farewell forced the infant to walk on unsteady legs, and by the time she was more available, the start-up was already shaky and experiencing management turmoil.

For all that, Winfrey is still asking a lot of her admirers by insisting the channel doesn’t require a steady infusion of Oprah, as Rose suggested, but rather merely needs to reflect her “live your best life” philosophy.

Sorry, but that’s not enough. While fans could reserve an hour a day for her, a dedicated channel ups the ante, and demands her presence pretty constantly.

Instead, OWN expected viewers to tune in on the strength of Oprah’s endorsement. Although that might have worked well enough with books and magazines, translating success into those fields represents mere subsets compared to TV’s mass appeal.

OWN has thus inadvertently demonstrated the precise limits of an Oprah seal of approval, without the woman herself.

Moreover, much like Keith Olbermann in the context of his uphill battle at Current, Winfrey and her partner Discovery made the assumption acolytes would follow the host to new ventures, without fully taking into account the growing pains of a start-up (or at best fledgling) network.

Recent sampling of OWN fare only highlights the high hurdles the channel faces, and where its shortcomings lie.

Winfrey’s jailhouse interview with Shaquan Duley, a South Carolina mother who pleaded guilty to killing her sons, was compelling, if highly manipulative. But it’s also a stretch for the “best life” crusade — closer to Nancy Grace than Deepak Chopra.

OWN also premiered “Beverly’s Full House,” a conventional celeb-reality series, featuring model Beverly Johnson and her family. Frankly, that and many other Winfrey-less series look like dowdier, less-edgy versions of Oxygen.

By contrast, later this week OWN will air the two-hour documentary “Tent City USA,” a look at Nashville’s homeless population. It’s an admirable attempt to connect faces to the issue but delivers mere snapshots.

Without Oprah, OWN is just another basic cabler in the hit-chasing business — alongside the female-oriented TLC and Bravo — but must do so shackled by a confining brand embodied by the host/mogul’s uplifting mantra. And while the “broccoli TV” rap has perhaps been overstated, the host’s messianic approach — “I believe that I am here to fulfill a calling,” she said Monday — does complicate the proven practice of wallowing in the muck to attract attention.

Naysayers should never sell Winfrey short, and as she demonstrated by landing her interview with Whitney Houston’s daughter, she possesses the connections and clout to spike the ratings needle. To achieve sustained gains, though, she’s going to have to leverage those assets, and be consistently present not just as hands-on executive, but on-camera mascot.

Erik Logan, one of the execs currently running OWN, told the Los Angeles Times the network has “right-sized our business financially.” But “right-sizing” was never the problem; wrong thinking was — the assumption Oprah had metamorphosed from genial daytime gal-pal into spiritual Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Winfrey objected when Rose suggested she was “fixing” a network, insisting he say “building” instead. Either way, OWN is in a fix, and ultimately, there just might not be enough Oprah to go around.

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