Oprah primed for ABC

Winfrey sells two reality shows to network

The queen of daytime is headed for primetime.

Oprah Winfrey has sold a pair of reality skeins to ABC via her Harpo Prods. banner. Despite her involvement in everything from magazine publishing to satellite radio, projects rep the first time Winfrey has attached her name to a weekly primetime series.

Skeins are the first productions to emerge from Harpo’s recently formed TV development group, headed by exec VPs Ellen Rakieten and Harriet Seitler.

Winfrey will appear in at least one of the two shows. It’s unclear if she’ll host either.

Deal reps a major coup for ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson and alternative topper Andrea Wong. For years, ABC execs have subtly tried to woo Winfrey to primetime — but have had to accept her decision to produce only specials and a handful of highly rated “Oprah Winfrey Presents” movies and minis.

“Oprah Winfrey getting into series TV is monumental,” McPherson said. “These two shows are a perfect fit for our alternative brand, with their focus on wish fulfillment and making lives better.”

First project, dubbed “Oprah Winfrey’s The Big Give,” has an eight-episode order from ABC. Skein follows a group of 10 people who will be handed money and resources — and then challenged to find dramatic and emotional ways to use the coin to help others.

Contestant field will be winnowed down each week, with the winner getting his or her wildest wish granted.

ABC also is teaming with Harpo on the tentatively titled “Your Money or Your Life.” Each self-contained episode will focus on a family facing a crisis.

An “action team” will move in and give the family a total money and life makeover.

ABC is developing the projects with Harpo’s Chi-based TV development group, which Winfrey launched in September.

Seitler and Rakieten said Winfrey decided to get into the reality business herself after years of watching others “borrow” ideas from her show.

“Everybody and their brother would call us asking for tapes of our shows, and we’d send out the tapes,” Rakieten said. “The next thing you know, just about every reality show that had a soul would have a kernel of daytime television in it.”

Indeed, one of ABC’s biggest reality shows — “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” — is the sort of pay-it-back fare that one could easily imagine existing as an episode of “Oprah.”

Not surprisingly, Harpo isn’t planning to delve into the sometimes salacious or mean-spirited territory unscripted producers often occupy. For example, while there will be eliminations on “The Big Give,” contestants won’t be humiliated in the process.

“There’s not going to be any losers on a Harpo show,” Seitler said. “Nobody’s going to be treated in a mean way.”

Harpo plans to split production of the skeins between Chicago and Los Angeles. That likely means bringing in some producers from outside the Harpo fold to supplement the work producers in Chi perform.

“We’ll be supervising, bringing in whatever resources we need to make the shows great,” Seitler said.

Execs said there’s no firm timetable on when the two shows will launch or which will air first. What is certain: The TV production group plans to be active in all types of programming.

“We’re starting to open the door in all sorts of arenas, from scripted and unscripted to digital,” Rakieten said. “We’re open for business in any area that’s within the mission statement for Harpo and the Oprah brand.”

While ABC and Harpo have had a close relationship over the years –thanks, in part, to the fact that her syndie skein airs on many ABC-owned stations and affils — execs at Harpo said they plan to talk to all nets.

“We want to build relationships everywhere,” Seitler said.

Early projects in development clearly reflect the influence of past “Oprah Winfrey” episodes. Indeed, “The Big Give” is similar in theme to a recent two-part Winfrey event in which the host gave audience members $1,000 gift cards and then challenged them to find dramatic ways to help us many people as possible.

However, “That show wasn’t the only tipping point,” Seitler said. “This is an amalgamation of many ideas we’ve done on the show.”