OD'ing on OWN

There are those who love Oprah (the woman, the show, the book club, the "live your best life" motto), and there are those who don't.

Somehow, I convinced two friends from the latter camp to spend Sunday watching OWN, Winfrey's new network, with me. All day long.


As we wrapped up the seventh hour, my couch companions were begging for an end to the marathon. We'd watched adopted adults tracking down their birth parents, wealthy children "kidnapping" an overworked dad to teach him about family time, and producers becoming nauseated from behind-the-scenes stress during The Oprah Winfrey Show's last season. Jay-Z delivered a monologue accompanied by stock footage of New York housing projects and an uber-dramatic soundtrack. The last straw for them was a way-too-realistic — way-too-realistic — poop animation, followed by Dr. Oz's expert advice on fiber consumption and "toilet training" oneself to avoid constipation.

"I've lost my will to live. Not just my best life, but any life!" my friend Gina moaned. Lindsey, ever pragmatic and famously squeamish, lost patience with the obese, vegetable-shunning family confronting their frightening cholesterol numbers on Ask Oprah's All Stars ("Ugh, stop with the dieting. Just eat less!"). 

Meanwhile, at the other end of the sofa, I was game for another couple of hours of OWN. I'm not an obsessive fan — I don't squeal and hop around at home during the "favorite things" giveaway — but I'm decidedly Oprah-y (nosy about the dramas of other people's lives, a maker of vision boards, a purveyor of pop psychology, a fan of docudramas). And, after all, a teaser had just promised that Dr. Phil would bark more commonsense advice to troubled guests in the next segment. And Diane Sawyer was about to come on! How could I turn away?

It might be more simple, though: Iif you love The Oprah Winfrey Show, chances are you'll love OWN. The end product provides the makings of a cultural voyeur's dream come true, a platform for the exploration of contemporary social issues and answers to life's pressing questions — like whether to take back an unfaithful husband and how to protect yourself from your handbag (before it transfers bacteria from bathroom floors to your kitchen counter to your food!). Plus, there's plenty of camera time dedicated to those with whom the Queen of Talk is mysteriously and openly obsessed (notably, John Travolta, with his airplane, and Wynonna and Naomi Judd, with their matching, not-found-in-nature red hair and willingness to air their mother-daughter dirty laundry). 

There aren't any huge surprises (aside from the planned ones, like the trip to Australia for the studio audience). Still, even the biggest Oprah fan couldn't have predicted everything a day of OWN would offer.

There's an unexpected chunk of the not-so-flattering side of Oprah on Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes. It's the kind of footage most of us wouldn't dream of allowing to run if we had the last word, as she does: There she is, huffing at her staff's efforts to present her with a sentimental video montage, because she "hate[s] surprises"; makeup-free and massaging her dog's food with her bare hands before making a disaster of her own attempt at a smoothie; getting her hair done in a meeting with producers; looking tired and sounding like the kind of boss who makes you start dreading Monday on Friday afternoons.


Those who expected daylong warm fuzzies will be surprised, but viewers planning to skip the lovefest and tune in for windows of "grit" might not get what they expect, either. The network's distribution of sugarcoating is unpredictable. Master Class is billed as "raw," but the first teacher, Jay-Z, ends up sounding like your grandma or graduation speaker, with his reflections stripped of the questions that prompted them or the experiences that inspired them. ("You have to be prepared for the good and the bad." "Everything in life is there to build character." "Belief in who you are is the foundation of everything great.") The episode skims over the nitty-gritty of his experience, as well as any details about his creative process.

But then, on Searching For, Pam Slaton, described by the network as "a professional investigative genealogist, stay-at-home mom and New Jersey housewife," helps a set of adopted twins look for their birth mother. The siblings find Mom, but she pretty much blows them off. You'd think the network might have scrapped this for a story with a feel-good conclusion, but instead, the episode thumps to a saccharine-free end. Not typical Oprah, but not altogether bad.  


I didn't see it all during my OWN marathon. There are plenty of additional programs that ran this weekend after my (former?) friends confiscated the remote, and many more are promised for later in the season. But it's safe to say that, even with a few differences (and of course, a lot more content), OWN won't stray far from the Oprah we know. She's not going to win over any new groupies with this one, but real fans will love it. You know who you are, and you definitely know who you aren't.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is a regular contributor to The Root.

Read Jennifer E. Mabry's article "Oprah's OWN Missed Opportunity" for an alternative perspective. And browse "OWN: Not the First Black-Led Network" for The Root's photo gallery of other black entrepreneurs who launched their own cable networks — with varying success.