On New Year’s Day, clad in celestial white, Oprah appeared, not unlike a vision, in 80-odd million American homes. She sang of herself and her new cable channel during that channel’s first offering, Oprah’s Guide to OWN: The New Oprah Winfrey Network. “Every single minute of the 24-hour network was created with you in mind,” she swore. She didn’t really mean me. Creating a network for yours truly would require the talents of ‘60s Godard, ‘70s Roone Arledge, ‘80s Cinemax After Dark, and the Muppets. Oprah’s kind of you is more interested in self-help than in self-amusement. As ever, she speaks to the dreams and frustrations of The Real You, and OWN—one of the greatest acronyms in the history of marketing—stands for the ownership of every sense of empowerment. Oprah wants you to take control of your life, and she wants you to feel possessive about her product. She’s all yours, and OWN indeed stays on message every single minute it’s on air. A commercial for contacts finds a lighting designer speaking of clarity and vision and the inspirational power of dappling. Where else on cable could an ad for Acuvue contact lenses also sell light and truth?
In the first minute of Oprah’s Guide, she enunciates the phrase “Oprah Winfrey Network” with an ornate theatrical flourish. Last May, taking Oprah’s measure on the occasion of a blockbuster trash biography, Slate’s Stephen Metcalf addressed a quote in which she spoke of herself as a religious figure: “I am the instrument of God … . My show is my ministry.” The statement is grand but not grandiose. There’s a becoming modesty behind it. In this religion, Oprah Winfrey, the woman herself, is the leader of the church, a saint, and—to select an overworked word with care—an icon. “Oprah Winfrey,” the concept, is something like the Holy Ghost. The distance between a lifestyle brand and a way of life collapses, and your own soul emerges as the star of the show.
The channel’s identity is so cohesive and its pace so particular that it less resembles a network than one never-ending talk show, with for instance its cooking show—Cristina Ferrare’s Big Bowl of Love—feeling like a soufflé-light cooking segment. Ferrare’s guest in the first episode was Cat Cora, the first femaleIron Chef. They made simple dishes that were attractive enough to wow a jaded guest. Then, nourished by the very process of cooking, they ate them standing up at the center island. The sisters were doing it for themselves. They chatted with neighborly good nature, barely even shilling the cookbook from which Cat’s salmon meatloaf derives. A conversational highlight: “Do you need a spatula?” “I would love a spatula.” Being there together was enough.
Big Bowl of Love is among the OWN shows conveying the impression that the network is something like a white-noise machine rigged up to emanate mild good vibes. You turn it on and leave it on, and if you leave it on long enough, something will come on demanding your consideration. On Oprah Presents Master Class, a low-key profile series, the high priestess’ friends and heroes (Diane Sawyer, Jay-Z, Lorne Michaels …) share palatable life lessons, and it is good. On Ask Oprah’s All-Stars, a two-hour block of confession, absolution, and advice, her underpriests (Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Suze Orman) field questions about your mind and your money and your bowel movements. “Kimberly from Houston, Tex., has been keeping a video poop journal. …” No actual screentime was devoted to Kimberly’s excretions. The job of putting you, meaning me, off of your paté was left to the graphics department, which conjured large images of large intestines to aid Dr. Oz in his chat about constipation. This poop business constituted the first segment of the first show without any cushioning welcome—a gesture both democratic and embracing. Nothing under the sun is alien to the All-Stars. Everybody poops.
In general, OWN’s reality shows offer their subjects sensitive reality checks. Enough Already! With Peter Walsh, about people living in pathologically cluttered circumstances, leaps beyond the logistical challenges and ab-psych profiles of A&E’s Hoarders to deliver a narrative of holistic wellness. Kidnapped by the Kids, about overworked parents enjoying enforced family vacations, sidles up to its target audience empathetically. “Hank thinks he’s taking part in a documentary on work-life balance.” In fact, he is being set up for an intervention. Hank’s 10-year-old daughter confiscates his BlackBerry and encourages a week of outdoor activities and shopping at Target; his 7-year-old son worries aloud that Daddy’s weekly business trips are actually jaunts to visit another family that he loves better; his wife whimpers; his heart swells; his perspective shifts; the languorous pace offsets the agitating circumstances.
On the first installment of In the Bedroom With Dr. Laura Berman, which is to the marital duty as Supernanny is to the parental one, we meet a Wisconsin couple, Steve and Becky, the erotic flame of whose marriage is flickering pathetically in its 15th year. A sex therapist moves in with them for three days to address issues including Steve’s cunnilingual ineptitude. Too resigned to failure even to be sheepish, he faces the camera: “She apparently thinks that my tongue isn’t either long enough or it’s not reaching where it should.” Addressing matters ranging from trust to power to feng shui, Dr. Berman gets the problem licked.
You recognize the patented Oprah glow in every facet of each of these shows, but she’s choosey—strategically so, as if wary of overexposing herself—about materializing in the flesh. For substantial face time, you must turn to Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes, which is a meta-show, a victory lap, a humble valediction, and a how-to guide on “raising the bar,” to use a phrase invoked five times an episode. We watch Oprah wrapping up her daytime talk show after its quarter-century of dominance. Here she is, makeupless in the morning, frolicking with her spaniel. There she is, Buddhistic behind her desk, getting just a bit snippy with her producers as they go about the business of booking Judds, appeasing Liza, and engineering epiphanies. Teases for Season 25 tempt viewers with scenes of Oprah getting yet more snippy with her employees about technical difficulties and errors of judgment. Then you see such moments in context and realize that she’s enacting a drama about being tough but fair, a perfect mother inspired to exhort her employees to achieve their full potential. This is the network in a nutshell: To thine OWN selves be true.