Defending Oprah

No doubt many pundits and members of the public alike are taking some crude delight in the recent troubles of Oprah Winfrey. In attempting to launch her post-talk show life via her own cable channel, OWN, the former Queen of Media’s seemingly faultless Midas touch has become seriously tarnished. So far, her network endeavor has, allegedly, lost over $300 million and struggled to find anywhere near an Oprah-size audience. It’s been the site of major staff lay-offs and Winfrey herself has even resorted to Twitter to beg for viewers, a crass display, one that would previously been considered far beneath the TV legend.

Quite frankly, I’ve never been a fan of the daytime superstar, even less so in recent years as she has systematically dithered away her massive influence and daily platform on lame, greed-based giveaways and hour-long fawnings over John Travolta and Hugh Jackman. By the time she signed off in 2011, it was hard for me to believe it wasn’t time for her to go.

Still, the difficult birth of OWN is a surprising turn of events for brand name like Winfrey who brings with her such enormous good-will and, until now, such an accomplished track record.

But OWN’s shortfalls so far have come, not by aiming too low, but instead in trying to buck the trends of the current cable landscape. Via her channel, Winfrey, especially when she started, did seem determined to bring to the airwaves something more than just entertainment or diversion. She wants to inspire and share with her audience her own vision for self-improvement and ways to “live your best life” as she often says. Unfortunately, such high-minded ideals and good intentions don’t always win you ratings points–as Winfrey has sadly discovered.

Though not specifically tailored toward women, OWN’s fortunes will undoubtedly be dependent upon that demographic. And if cable TV’s previous attempts to garner female viewers are any indication, it seems inevitable that Winfrey and her staff are going to have to eventually reinvent themselves and, more specifically, lower their standards if they are going to survive and thrive.

Lifetime has always wanted to be “TV for women.” And, apparently, being TV for women in the 2000s means re-airing exploitative TV movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s starring the likes of Meredith Baxter and Valerie Bertinelli. Currently, Lifetime’s two flagship shows are the channel originals The Client List, about a housewife who moonlights as a masseur, and the wretched Dance Moms, an ugly reality hybrid of Real Housewives and Toddlers and Tiaras and embracing all the stereotypes therein.

TV’s other channels aimed at women, though founded, assumedly, with feminist and pro-woman objectives, are also, at present, also taking a rather jaundiced view of their own gender. WE-TV, launched 1997, airs Bridezillas and also features reality shows starring former tabloid staple Shannon Doherty and, soon, former Playboy Playmate Kendra Wilkinson. Over on Oxygen (which began with much fanfare in 2000 and, originally, counted Winfrey herself as a partner), the schedule includes Snapped, a program about women turn murderers, and the reality show The Bad Girls Club, about a group of women just this side of murderers who live together, argue drunkenly and frequently fist fight in front of the cameras.

Of course, it is not uncommon for cable channels to morph over the years. Actual music and music videos are few and far between on MTV; instead, they now have Jersey Shore and all those Teen Moms. TLC actually used to be The Learning Channel, but when was the last time you learned anything from Toddlers and Tiaras? Major redefinition has also befallen A&E (once upon a time, Arts and Entertainment) which is now the home to Intervention, Hoarders and Billy the Exterminator. Similarly, Bravo (an NBC off-shoot) was originally conceived as a home for highbrow art and cultural programming. Today, of course, it’s the home to the Real Housewives with programming mastermind Andy Cohen acting as ringmaster.

As in all businesses, these changes are market driven. Did anyone watch Bravo five years ago? As cable channels have aimed lower and wider, filling their schedules with more exploitative “reality” fare, success has followed suit. Unfortunately, such strategy, while beneficial to the bottom line, often comes at the cost of a channel’s original identity and intent.

Even within its own short history (the network signed on January 1, 2011), OWN has already shown a watering down of its “live your best life” manifesto. While the network began with high-minded fair like Ask Oprah’s All-Stars, featuring Suze Orman and Dr. Oz, along with others in Oprah’s advice stable, OWN soon—by choice or necessity–became the venue for personality-driven “lifestyle” (read: train wreck) shows featuring Tatum and Ryan O’Neal and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York.

Still, despite these attempts, so far OWN’s only true success has been programs with Winfrey herself, each of them not that much different from some of her old Chicago-based talk shows only now, as Winfrey proudly boasts, no longer “stuck” in the studio. Rosie O’Donnell’s much-heralded return to the daily talk show format over OWN was a non-starter and most of the channel’s primetime air has recently been plugged with off-network reruns of Undercover Boss and 48 Hours. Certainly these repeats are far cheaper than original programming, but are hardly likely to reign in viewers or propel Oprah’s message and vision forward.

Of late, the network is gaining some traction with the program Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s, a reality show that follows a former Ike and Tina back-up singer as she and her family work alongside each other in their St. Louis-based diner. It’s interesting and harmless enough, though perhaps not really inspiring. But Sweetie Pie’s marginal success will, no doubt, lay the foundation for its future programming. And, in its style and structure, Sweetie Pie’s is only a few degrees removed from such other cable fare as Hardcore Pawn or Jerseylicious. Nevertheless, watchers of OWN should probably look forward to more of the same–Winfrey might have little choice. Soon OWN might be interchangeable with WE and Lifetime.

But…if Winfrey and her channel wants to take the high-road, she and her OWN executives are going to have to not only buck the low-rent instincts (and resulting profits) that have become cable mainstays, but also attempt to turn the tide for almost all current TV. It’s certainly a noble cause. But she’s going to need more time and money and even more steadfastness to do it. And I’m not sure even the great and mighty Oprah will be able to stay that course.