Oprah Winfrey has her own TV show, her own magazine, her own satellite radio channel, her own production company, hell, even her own presidential candidate. In hindsight, her own TV network seems almost overdue.
Discovery made it official last week, unveiling a deal to transform Discovery Health into the Oprah Winfrey Network (or OWN for short), providing the daytime queen a new cable throne since shedding ties to Oxygen, the channel for women that’s since been acquired by NBC. For Discovery — which announced an initial public offering in December — hitching your wagon to such a recognizable and beloved personality qualifies as a no-brainer if there ever was one.
At first blush, the announcement did invite a touch of cynicism. What’s next, other celebrities capitalizing on expanding digital capacity to establish branded channels for the faithful? From OWN, it’s not such a leap to such easily remembered acronyms as the Rosie O’Donnell Experience (ROE), Bill O’Reilly Operation (BOO) or Sean Hannity Television (SHT).
It’s tempting, too, to mock Winfrey’s acolytes, who are quickly riled by any discouraging words written about the host. Yet those who have followed her career evolution know she is not to be trifled with or short-changed — that indeed, the bond with her audience thwarts all manner of sniping, fostering legions of loyal fans who insist she is devoted to improving people’s lives, whereas all critics do is tear them down.
While perhaps guilty as charged (most of the time, anyway) on that second point, there’s nevertheless cause for skepticism on the first and what OWN truly augurs.
Winfrey deserves credit for pulling herself out of the daytime muck — the trough she once shared with Phil Donahue, Maury Povich, Montel Williams and the like. Since that almost messianic awakening, she has proffered a self-empowering vision of uplift and hope, becoming a kind of all-purpose guru to her predominantly female audience.
Winfrey’s self-help mantra, however, represents a facile approach for people who truly need assistance managing their lives — the millions of women who keep making bad decisions about everything from men to careers, without whom there would be no daytime TV, inasmuch as they overpopulate courtshows, “Jerry Springer” and other venues devoted to pain and sleaze.
In addition, Winfrey’s interest in self-improvement programs and uplifting tales has periodically aligned her with dubious properties, from “The Secret” to James Frey’s fabricated memoir “A Million Little Pieces.” As Peter Birkenhead wrote on Salon, by promoting “The Secret’s” simple-minded formula that “you create the circumstances of your life with the choices you make,” Winfrey has “helped create a symbiotic economy of New Age quacks that almost puts OPEC to shame.”
While Winfrey’s heart is clearly in the right place (as evidenced by her charitable endeavors), such lapses of judgment would be easier to dismiss as isolated incidents if the self-help industry weren’t so full of snake-oil salesmen, eager to promise better lives for a fee, plus shipping and handling.
Personal empowerment will also serve as a template for the revised network, which the parties say will be “designed to entertain, inform and inspire people to live their best lives.” If that all sounds a little vague, look to her O magazine and expect programming that showcases the “Oprah” entourage, from various experts to first pal Gayle King.
Winfrey’s endorsement of presidential contender Barack Obama drew recent attention from political pundits who would normally ignore her, but few recognized what she has accomplished. With the TV show as her main platform, she championed a gentler format perceived as being too soft to survive and made it all enormously profitable. So what if the solutions are at best common sense, and the self-improvement principles — an alluring image that straddles the political spectrum — are really a paper-thin construct that offer little to the neediest viewers, built around heart-warming anecdotal success stories sure to win applause from a studio audience?
Winfrey’s affiliation will be enough to put the new channel on the map, and other brand-name stars (and those inclined to bankroll them) will surely be watching its fate with interest.
For now, though, Oprah will again blaze the trail — a larger-than-life personality who, for better and worse, plays in a league all her OWN.