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TV Review: Oprah’s OWN Network, Where Fluffy Meets Smart

by Caryn James
January 2, 2011 3:32 AM
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Oprah Winfrey has the amazing ability to say things – or rather make pronouncements - that might sound alarming from other people. As she told Barbara Walters about starting OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, “People deserve to have value-centered, inspirational programming.” What? Imagine that value-centric statement coming from some tea-partying Sarah Palin clone and it takes on a far less innocuous tone.

With OWN, Oprah has set herself up to be America’s life coach, so it’s worth asking: exactly what values is she training us in? They are ultimately as benign as her motto, “live your best life,” but much more complicated. OWN (the channel launched on New Year’s Day) displays a whiff of spirituality, a huge amount of life-style fluff, and a surprising layer of substance.

If you’re not a die-hard Oprah fan, if you wouldn’t jump, squeal and wail like a banshee if someone gave you a Kindle or even a car, you can skip most of the programs. They are derivative, with an Oprah spin. There are cooking shows like Cristina Ferrare’s Big Bowl of Love; was there ever a more Oprah-esque title? There’s Enough Already! With Peter Walsh, in which the host gets families to unclutter their houses and lives, a less pathological version of A&E’s Hoarders.

Oprah grasps the power of stardom, and has loaded OWN’s many reality shows with celebrities. Right now there’s Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes, which follows the making of the current, final season of her regular talk show. Coming in the next months, shows in which we watch famous people who have crashed emotionally, like Sarah Ferguson and Shania Twain, try to like themselves again. Honestly, even Oprah can’t convince me I want to see Ryan and Tatum O’Neal try to repair their train-wreck of a father-daughter relationship; I wonder how she convinced herself.

But along with this fluffernutter of a schedule comes a real commitment to serious non-fiction shows and documentary films. OWN’s best current series is Oprah Presents Master Class, in which accomplished people talk about who they are and how they got there. The lineup is eclectic enough to include Sidney Poitier and Simon Cowell, and on this weekend’s first episodes, Jay-Z and Diane Sawyer.

Visually, Master Class resembles Sundance Channel’s Iconoclasts; it comes from the same high-powered team of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Sitting against a plain black backdrop, the subject faces the camera, with many quick-cuts to profile and video inserts from their careers; the show is smoothly edited to within an inch of its life. There is no on-camera interviewer, and I’d love to have heard the questions prodding the subjects to talk about recurring topics like overcoming failure. Yet it all works.

The Sawyer segment was better than Jay-Z’s because it was less filled with platitudes. Easy for Jay-Z to say he didn’t get a record contract, so started his own label; he doesn’t say how, and that’s the hard part. Sawyer talked more specifically about journalism, and the episode seemed fresh. I’d never seen those clips of her 1990’s tough-question interview with Saddam Hussein.

Even more encouraging, in the spring OWN will begin what it calls a monthly documentary film club. The network is co-producing docs with people whose names help, like Julia Roberts (hers is on mothers who are activists), Gabriel Byrne (homelessness in Nashville) and Forest Whitaker (a hospice in a maximum security prison). And OWN’s acquired documentaries include one of the strongest I saw at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival: Sons of Perdition, about three teenage boys who escaped a splinter-Mormon polygamist compound. Eventually, the doc club could help non-fiction film the way Oprah’s book club gave publishing a boost.

The current series Miracle Detectives may offer the purest reflection of the network’s approach. Together, a man who believes in miracles and a woman who believes in science investigate supposedly miraculous events. The strained but intriguing show accepts the role of faith yet lets us know that the healing properties of soil in the village of Chimayo, New Mexico might well result from a placebo effect bolstering the immune system. That’s the Oprah attitude: veering toward the spiritual but determinedly open-minded.

Beneath the inspirational advice that often sounds like hot air, and the clean-up-your-room mom’s voice, Oprah has a bedrock belief in reason, intelligence and education. That’s what makes her so valuable and OWN so promising to the non-banshees among us.

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  • pdevlin | July 20, 2011 7:29 AMReply

    The behind the scenes goings on at the Oprah show was pitifully boring - and now we're are going to see MORE of her?

    Not a good idea, Oprah. Stick to what you are good at - interviewing others. You are not interesting enough yourself to be a star and the sooner you figure that out, the better for OWN.

  • ceridwen crotinger | January 18, 2011 3:19 AMReply

    My favorite channel is gone. asi` asi` OWN is one long typically boring Oprah show. I think that it's funny how you oh so painfully expressed your depression with the failure of your movie Beloved at just this time. Poor, sad Oprah, we must watch her purgatorial network so she doesn't get sad again! Ego-maniacal sold-your-soul phony. Try a little less introspection and really take a REALISTIC look at how you appear from the outside. The whole O-adoration thing is just so creepy.People felt a great need for Jim Jones,etc., too.

  • Asheley | January 12, 2011 6:20 AMReply

    I no longer watched the Oprah show as I was able to save myself from her cult. Here are just a few of the reasons why I refuse to watch her network.

    First, the people who are out "living their best life" are not sitting in front of the tv watching Oprah hoping to get some inspiration so they can start living their best life. They are actually out, living their own life.

    Second, I agree with the previous commenter who stated that Oprah is catering to the "haves". If you are working two jobs jobs or are a stay at home mom watching the pennies so you can stretch your grocery budget, "Oprah's favourite things" is not going to help you.

    I was brought up in a government housing poverty stricken neighbourhood by a single mother. Let me tell you, poor people don't have the luxury of thinking about being their best self, how to reorganize their closet, going camping in Yosemite or getting a make over. They are not able to just pick up and fly off to Austrailia because they have responsibilities and they are not middle class house wives who have tons of time on their hands to worry about being "deep" and trying to be like Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love.

    Let's face it. That's why Oprah is so popular. She's got all of these women who live totally unconsciously everyday thinking that if they watch her they are deep thoughtful people. The sad part is that they are just as materialistic, selfish and ignorant as before. The only difference is that now they say annoying things like Light bulb moment, and owning your truth.

    She's in it for the money people. She doesn't care if you live your best life. It's a gimmick so she can sell things and get paid for sponsorship. I'm sure she and Stedman have a great laugh about it every night before they go to bed.

  • Linda De Narde | January 8, 2011 1:00 AMReply

    So sad you cannot see Own unless you upgrade you Comcast, just think that is the saddest thing ever for people that can just afford basic cable,,,so sad

  • geegee | January 5, 2011 8:48 AMReply

    Liked watching "Behind the Scenes". Other than that, I found it BORING! One of the benefits of cable is that viewers have many choices and I wont be watching OWN again. In a word, it SUCKS!

  • kath johnson | January 5, 2011 6:43 AMReply

    first of all the discovery health channel was one of my favorites, I learned a lot from watching it,then you come along with all of your money and just take it away. you've forgotten what it's like to not have money and the fact that you are so starstuck with celebs tells me that you shouldn't be trying to teach anything to anyone. you've just bought a network to glorify all that you think you are.I haven't watched your show since you've begun seeing yourself as such a diva and squeeling like a little girl at celebs. you make everything about you,you,you so you buy a network to glorify you, you, you . You think you're some kind of guru and you know the right way to do everything. You've lost touch with reality there's people starving, animals being abused, vets sleeping on the street. Do you really think I care what that windbag dr. Phil thinks or when you show us how to decorate with the money we don't have, or tell us about the medical test we need to save our lives when we have no money or insurance. you have forgotten what it's like to be like all of the rest of us , living from pay check to pay check. It sickens me to see all of those women screaming and squeeling at your mere presence I feel sad that as humans we are still putting certain people on pedistals and not seeing what we need to do to save the world. I personally don't care what you think or who you know , you don't impress me, I could have learned far,far, more on Discovery Health Channel but you just decided in your infinite wisdom to take that away from me, because you are the queen right? why don't you use your money to help humanity instead of giving away cars and to glorify yourself by buying a network to teach us the right way, OPRAHS way. no thanks i'd rather watch golf and i hate that .

  • j. templeton | January 5, 2011 6:18 AMReply

    I have nothing against Oprah.(I don't like her show though.) She has worked hard and is a giving person, but she does have billions of dollars. I don't see a need for her new network. Oprah has the power, money, influence to change a lot in this world, yet she starts a network that seems to showcase more celebrities and people that have. And i don't want to just pick on Oprah, most celebrites and professional athletes are overpaid for what they do. Even CEOs of huge corporations are overpaid. (I lot of them get millions and bonus checks to run the company into bankruptsy.) As someone who also works hard (i have 3 jobs), and the fact that most people/families live on incomes of only thousands a year, i just find it hard that any one person needs millions even billions to live a happy life. I'm not looking for a handout ( i am happy in my current situation), but i'm a bit of an idealist and believe people who have should be helping the people who don't. Its not about just handing out money to the extreme poor, that sometimes aren't even helping themselves. The rich have the ability to build new schools and hospitals, and bring education/technology to places all over the world. Another new network or tv show isn't going to do that. TV has been around for awhile now, and i don't think the world as a whole is getting better. What the world truly needs is someone to inspire and bring hope to people. Oprah has the ability to do that, and its not through a new network. In fact, she took her inspiration away from the people who can only afford basic cable.

  • Patricia England | January 5, 2011 5:19 AMReply

    The people you need to be reaching out to can't afford your show and the ones that can afford it don't need your advice to "Live Your Best Life" because they can afford to shell out an extra 15 a month and then go about and try to attain that goal.
    Real people that need help won't be watching. Why not use your quadrillions on programs for the unemployed to help pay for classes to re enter the work force in other areas. What about grants for small businesses and after 2 years, if there is success, pay back a certain %.
    I don't need to hear how someone else made it and not discuss how they did it. How to cook a great meal when I can't afford bruschetta and Emeril pots and pans.
    You are catering as usual to the rich and the haves. How about something for the have nots? I am an entreprenuer, great cook, inventor and a musician and I can't find a job here in florida, much less a small business loan to get my invention off the ground. I am not looking for handouts either. At least there is security between this rock and the hard place. Thank goodness for unemployment insurance to pay the bills and volunteer work to feed my soul.

    Patricia E

  • Michael Antunes | January 5, 2011 5:04 AMReply

    January 5, 2011

    Dear Oprah:

    my name is Michael Antunes, born here
    of America/ Cape Verdean decent. I have a musical animation for children, but also for older people too !

    It is an uplifting animation, that would help us with all the situations and problems we incounter in our lives.
    An animated series that, as I like to say, is like the
    centipede with many legs /or stories to tell !!!

    I have a 15 minute DVD I would love to send to you.

    It would be an honor for me to have You and your staff review it to see if it meets your standards or approval to be on OWN !

    Thank You & GOD BLESS,

    Michael Tunes Antunes
    895A Putnam Pike
    Chepachet, R. I. 02814
    401-710-7293 home
    401-347-4256 cell

    again, THANK YOU SO MUCH

  • groundup | January 5, 2011 3:52 AMReply

    your inspirations are somewhat uninspiring mostly.I still see the children and moms of Alabama Waiting in the shadows for more educational support from you inthat state, GO and build their OWN schools for them. Oprah you know the cards that are being dealt in that state. Alabama citizens needs OWN to own up! "You can do it!"

  • J S SMYTH | January 5, 2011 2:55 AMReply

    Although I have a great respect for Oprah and all her contributions and achievements, I question the decision to broadcast on a channel not included in the basic cable package. While Ms. Winfrey's business success and acumen is beyond most in the broadcast industry, I wonder how many viewers OWN lost due to the fact that this network is only available on premium cable packages.

  • Retta | January 5, 2011 2:53 AMReply

    I miss the health channel , one of my favorites. I find OWN boring and trite.

  • Oprah Fan | January 5, 2011 2:53 AMReply

    Can't believe have to upgrade cable to watch your new network. Sorry "O" just won't do it.

  • Gertrina Westbrooks | January 5, 2011 1:48 AMReply

    This is great!!!

    Please tell OWN's CEO to keep up the good work!!!!

    Just do what you do best which is TV Production with entertainment!!!!

    Please read Psalm 91, 41 and 23 line by line daily. Give each line deep thought. You will find even more creativity for your program line up

  • shirley voigt | January 4, 2011 10:45 AMReply

    Oprah has priced me out. I cannot afford to go up another $15. a month just to watch her shows.

  • Anne Thompson | January 4, 2011 12:46 AMReply

    My daughter and I sampled OWN this weekend--as diehard Oprah fans--and got caught up in the behind-the-scenes shenanigans at the Oprah show as well as the Jay-Z interview. It struck me that what was missing was the audience. Something about Oprah playing to that crowd keeps her on her toes and provides a live wire of electricity between her and her viewers, not only in the room but in the broadcast ether.

    Her advantage is that she knows what has worked for the show in the past--she made Dr. Oz and Peter Walsh stars. But a constant drum of self-promotion made me uncomfortable, and during the Jay-Z interview I really wanted to know: who was asking the questions? And why wasn't it Oprah, as billed?

    That said I bet this network, which has started off with good numbers ( will be hugely successful on a menu of spiritual and day-to-day self-improvement.

  • IMeanWhat | January 3, 2011 4:25 AMReply

    What sad new reality shows do you think The Big O will come up with for OWN? Read more @imeanwhat

  • DAVID BAILEY | January 3, 2011 2:29 AMReply

    OPRAH: Let Love Lead The Way. . . (DRAFT/ Awaiting for Permissions)

    I would like to share something with Oprah and the world.... It's an original video/lyrics/song which pays tribute to her for all of the many things that she has given to our world. Please take a listen and share with ALL OF YOUR FRIENDS AND ASSOCIATES .

  • Miss Kathy | January 3, 2011 2:24 AMReply

    I like it the Channel. I like the concept. The ideas she's (or they) have come up with are captivating. The content is good. As long as it stays that way.However, the behind the scenes of her show bothers me. I know how working in t.v. is, but it's a little Devil Wears Prada. Even when "relaxed" the staff seems nervous. They are not in good shape. Okay, they look terrible except for her gd hairdressers.Perhaps that's required???

  • GLADYS BELL | January 2, 2011 7:41 AMReply


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