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Oprah goes out on her OWN

‘Dream it, do it.” This is not the resolution of a person, but rather the motto of the United States’s newest television channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network.

OWN, as Winfrey’s much-touted, long-gestated TV channel is known, launched on January 1.

Anything the self-made billionaire and media phenomenon does is viewed with interest, whether it’s recommending a book or a presidential candidate. But, as she herself has said, this venture is easily her riskiest to date.

This is the first time a talk-show host has taken over an entire channel and arguably the first time a channel has been so thoroughly branded by a single personality. According to Arianna Huffington — who knows more than a little about being the face of a media brand as the editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post — Winfrey’s move reflects the growing trend of media becoming ‘very personal and driven by specific voices and points of view.

People are more likely to trust a person who speaks directly to them than a faceless brand.”
OWN represents an enormous professional gamble for Winfrey as she will move from mass-market broadcast television to the niches of cable. On OWN’s website there is a ‘channel finder” to help Winfrey’s American fans find their heroine in the jungle of the triple-digit cable channels.

But even if they find Winfrey and her latest project, will they want to stay? She made her name on her eponymous talk show, which at the time was revolutionary with its mix of emotionally charged interviews with celebrities, consumerism and news investigations. The format has been copied many times since by other talk-show hosts, but this time it’s Winfrey who is following in ­others’ footsteps.

The programme line-up for OWN is a familiar mix of reality TV shows (including one called Finding Sarah that follows Sarah Ferguson’s attempt to rebuild her life), cookery shows, self-help programmes and talk shows.

Not only are there plenty of other stations on American TV that follow this brief, but it is arguably precisely this kind of soupy self-help that made Winfrey’s talk show look increasingly dated. The channel is also lacking the one thing that might make this network unique — Oprah herself.

Although Winfrey is contracted to appear on the channel for 70 hours a year, she will not be bringing her talk show, which will continue to run on network TV until September 2011.

‘I’m prepared for all the naysayers and yada yadas,” Winfrey said in an interview with the New York Times, with her characteristic mix of pluck and hokey coinages. However, she also admitted in the same interview: ‘I’m about as calm as a person who’s about to give birth to such a ­humongus baby can be.”

That Winfrey spoke to the press at all is at least as significant as anything she said. It is a sign of her ambition at best, anxiety at worst, about the network that she — always happier being the interviewer than the interviewee — submitted herself to doing pre-launch publicity. As well as several newspaper interviews, she endured being asked on TV by Barbara Walters about the long-running lesbian rumours that have swirled around her for her entire career. ­Winfrey tearfully denied them.

Yet despite the nerves, there is one promising sign for OWN in O magazine. Winfrey launched O in 2000 and it is essentially a print template of what OWN will be, even down to the columnists in the magazine who will be talk-show hosts on OWN. It is a much smarter and sleeker product than most women’s lifestyle magazines and has a far higher circulation than, for example, Martha Stewart’s Living.

‘Oprah has shown that, from TVs to books to magazines, she has her finger on the cultural pulse of America,” says Huffington. But would Huffington herself really watch OWN? ‘Yes!” she replies, all enthusiasm, no hesitation. —

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