Will you watch the Oprah Winfrey network? Discovery, the channel’s owner (OWN will replace the Discovery Health Channel) is betting on it. So is Oprah, who may not need anything additional in the way of wealth, fame, or influence but surely wants success for her newest venture just the same. With the recent addition of Cablevision , OWN will be available in 85 million homes starting Jan. 1. But cable is a crowded field, jam-packed with talk and reality. Media watchers, harkening back to the failure of the much-touted Oxygen network, have largely spoken doom. Above all, many seem to doubt that OWN brings anything new to the table.
But the application of Ms. Winfrey’s winning “live your best life” message to an entire slate of programing would indeed be something new, or at least something that’s missing. That faint rebuke with its promise of redemption has made her partnership with Hearst into that company’s second-most profitable title, brought her fans who never watched her talk show and filled a gap in the newsstands that no one but the media queen spotted. It’s a gap that’s recreated itself in our cable guides. Just as high-end women’s magazines had left behind positive messages in favor of either celebrity or fashion, the lifestyle genre of reality television has long since abandoned any real notion of improving or portraying people’s real lives behind in favor of snark and an ever-present quest to see who can sink lowest. You like organizing shows? How about a show about people with really messy houses? Ooh, no, how about a show about people whose messy houses are actually a sign of clinical disorder? And what if their children have been taken away or their families have left them as a result? That would be really good!
Well, no. Plenty of people, myself included, just found it relaxing, and maybe a little inspirational, to see someone with a messier closet than ours get it straightened out, or see a fashion-challenged person get help without humiliation, or watch a couple of rooms get redecorated minus the tragic backstory or talk-show worthy battles that made watching more guilty than pleasure. Oprah, who’s long complained about the descent of talk shows like her own into overly confrontational territory, seems to want to understand that while schadenfreude sells, there’s a fine line between vicarious appreciation of a voluntary train wreck, a la Real Housewives , and gratuitous rubber-necking.
OWN’s line-up includes classic lifestyle remake shows that promise not to peel away too much of participants’ dignity, like “Enough Already,” on organizing and clutter and Kidnapped By the Kids, which promises to help kids get more time with workaholic parents. It includes cooking shows with “real” cooks and cooking shows with chefs. Its Master Class series will offer “first-person insight into the minds” of modern “masters” we “respect, love and admire,” including Lorne Michaels, Condoleezza Rice, Jay-Z, and Diane Sawyer.
But even when she gives us celebrities to emulate, Oprah doesn’t skip the train wreck. A special version, titled Master Class: Finding Sarah is a six-part “documentary” in which Oprah luminaries like Dr. Phil and Suze Orman try to remake the “morally bankrupt” Sarah Ferguson into a contributing member of society. I have a sneaking suspicion that may prove as irresistible to this channel surfer as an ESPN classic showing of the 1991 Duke/UNLV basketball championship does when my my husband is wielding the remote. Oprah Winfrey struck the right blend of inspiration and aspiration in her magazine. If she can rightly meld inspiration and schadenfreude in her network, she may once again fill in a gap no one else saw.
Photograph of Oprah by George Burns/Harpo Productions Inc. via Getty Images.