Oprah Winfrey is about to OWN Canada.
That’s the buzz as her new network, OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) launches tonight at midnight on cable in the United States. Canadians are going to have to wait a while as Corus owns the rights and plans to preview it for a few months on W before re-branding VIVA as OWN Canada March 1.
OWN Canada seems a tad threatening. Sure the billionaire TV host could OWN Canada, but why not O Canada? There’s a network you could get people to stand to attention to.
Apparently there is an educational content wrinkle or two to be ironed out before VIVA gets OWNed. VIVA has changed names and owners a few times but began on specialty as Canadian Learning Television. One of the conditions of that licence was that shows be tied to some sort of post-secondary education courses. OWN may have to link viewers with Couch Jumping 101 at Humber or Sheridan’s “Steadman vs. Gayle: Discuss” in order to stay in the CRTC good books.
Conditions aside, the OWN launch is a potential game changer in television. Oprah Winfrey became rich and famous through 25 years in syndication but that gravy train appears to be pulling into the station for good. People are amazed when I tell them Jerry Springer and Maury Povich still have daytime programs on the air. They failed to jump to cable and are pretty much off the radar. Oprah is smart to make this move while she still has the juice to sell books and elect presidents.
Plus, hey, the U.S. Discovery network is backing the entire venture to the tune of $160 million. They start off in 85 million U.S. homes, with a direct feed to the cable and satellite money tap.
What they’re getting is brand loyalty like no other. Oprah’s core fans, older women, will buy her magazines, read her books and follow her anywhere. (Even when she and Gayle King loaded up the van and drove to Yellowstone Park, which may have been Oprah’s jump-the-shark moment.)
It is impossible to imagine any other individual TV entertainer who could extend their brand to an entire network in a way that creates so much buzz before it even begins. When Martha Stewart took her shows to the U.S. cable Hallmark Channel, it wasn’t such a good thing as she generally faded from view. Winfrey may find her voice does not extend as far as it once did on broadcast, but whose does? Broadcast isn’t what it used to be, and Oprah is wise to follow the money over to the cable side.
Speaking of energy, no one person can carry a whole network, and Oprah is going to her deep bench of celebrity pals to pull this off. Shania Twain, Fergie, The Judds, Rosie O’Donnell, they’ll all have their own OWN shows eventually, but not right away and not for months. You’ll see lifestyle programming up there for now, cooking shows, health tips, reruns of previous Oprah content.
It will still be up to Oprah herself to turn her brand into a cable empire. Here’s hoping she follows through on a stated goal of providing more “mindful” programming. She is taping a series of one-on-one interviews with famous people like Lorne Michaels, Maya Angelou, Diane Sawyer, Simon Cowell and Jay-Z. We’ll hear them state what it was that made them what they are today. More of that on TV is a good thing.
Her skills as an interviewer are often overlooked, but Winfrey showed she can still set the agenda last winter when she sat down opposite Jay Leno. Leno was looking for benediction after being branded the bully who stole Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show. His friend Winfrey, however, did not give him the free pass he was probably expecting. Winfrey was tough and honest and viewers were rewarded with insights into Leno they probably never saw before or since.
She also continues to be one of those people who, as rich and famous as she is, continues to be somebody you’d love to sit and talk to in your kitchen. She has that common touch and enough curiosity to stay on her game. People see her weight go up and down and relate.
Five years ago she was at press tour to promote an ABC TV movie she had made with Halle Berry. It was the day Johnny Carson died, and I chased her out to the parking lot and got her exclusive response as well as a great story about her own first visit to Carson’s couch. I found her warm and professional.
Sometimes, for me however, the cult of Oprah gets a bit much. Her own sit down with Barbara Walters recently showed an early clip of a young Oprah whose ego and ambition seemed rocket fueled. There is a Bill Maher clip circulating on YouTube where he voices his disgust over the excesses of her “special things” episodes, where studio audience members go nuts at the prospect of free cars, ranges and toaster ovens. it is, as Maher suggests, “disturbing” and not particularly mindful.
That’s the deal Oprah has made with her viewers, however. We all lust after stuff even if we want others to think we aim higher. Oprah is as relatable in her sins as in her higher purpose.
I’ll be talking about Oprah and OWN today on various CBC syndicated radio stations across the country, and again tonight on CBC’s The National. UPDATE: Watch the CBC OWN report on The National here.