Oprah's OWN Missed Opportunity

Illustration for article titled Oprah's OWN Missed Opportunity


That pretty much sums up my feelings for the pending Oprah Winfrey Network slated to launch on Jan. 1, 2011, on cable. Winfrey is one of the brightest — and most popular — personalities to have graced television, wielding power as a cultural tastemaker. Ever since her syndicated show made its national debut in 1986, she has reinvigorated the talk format revolutionized by Phil Donohue, her one-time competitor. One would therefore hope that Ms. O would use her second act to improve the television landscape — by being ambitious, adventurous and creative — and not be part of its further degeneration by adding to an already glutted market of voyeuristic dreck.


Instead she seems content to follow the new television model of programming that exploded in the wake of the 2008 Hollywood writers' strike: Find anyone with a heartbeat and a willingness to have cameras follow them during their ordinary day-to-day life, and voilà — we've got ourselves a TV show!

So what can viewers expect to see on OWN? The Rosie O'Donnell Show and Finding Sarah, the latter starring Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, who last year was caught on tape allegedly trying to sell access to the monarchy. And then there are the ongoing family reality dramas. The Judds will follow Naomi and Wynona as they continue to rehash their overly dramatized mother-daughter relationship, about which Oprah has already interviewed them 99 times too many. Meanwhile, Ryan and Tatum will follow the reunion of the O'Neals, the father-daughter team whose acting careers once shone brightly in Hollywood — Tatum was the youngest actor ever to win an Oscar, at age 10 — but were quickly consumed by drug abuse, jealousy and family acrimony.

Viewers can also expect Oprah's BFF, Gayle King, to helm a talk show (yawn) on the network. King long ago carved out a successful 20-year career as a TV news anchor in Connecticut before transitioning into her on-call gig for Oprah. In the years following her semiretirement, she hosted two national talk shows, both of which were canceled. Suffice it to say that no one is interested in what Robin has to say unless it pertains to Batman.

Much of the reported programming that is scheduled or in development revolves around cooking, makeovers, parenting, medicine and self-improvement — topics that are already playing out on TLC, HGTV, the Food Network, et al. (Winfrey is partnering with the Discovery Channel; her network will replace the Discovery Health Channel in 85 million homes.)

A much better bet: instead of routine reality TV, original scripted programming aimed primarily at upwardly mobile, upper-middle-class black folk. Under the auspices of Harpo Films, Winfrey has used her power and resources to produce such high-quality, black-themed fare as The Great Debaters, Beloved, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Women of Brewster Place and Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire. Why not do the same for her own network, which is helmed by Christina Norman, a black woman who was once president of MTV?

BET was a significant cable brand that courted black viewership and big advertising dollars. However, Johnson succumbed to the bottom line. He canceled the network's three news and public affairs programs — Lead Story, BET Tonight With Ed Gordon and Teen Summit — all of which provided an intelligent, more balanced view of black Americans. Johnson famously opted, instead, to increase the number of hours devoted to more cheaply produced, bosom-baring music videos.


The continuous fragmentation of television viewership based on individual tastes and multi-cable platforms is indicative of why a network with original programming aimed at upwardly mobile, black professionals makes sense. It's a demographic that has long been ignored. (TV One and BET's Centric, with their steady diet of reruns, don't count.) As a result, buppies are forced to satisfy their entertainment appetites with a variety of mainstream TV and movie fare and, occasionally, the less-than-stellar Tyler Perry production.

Of course, Winfrey is free to choose how she spends her millions. But it's disconcerting, to say the least, that of the breakout syndicated personalities she has helped to launch during her reign as the queen of media  — Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Nate Berkus and Rachael Ray — none is a black male or female, sans King.


OWN is a missed opportunity for Winfrey to create cable television that's truly FUBU: For Us, By Us.

Jennifer E. Mabry holds a doctorate in communication from the University of Maryland College Park and is a cultural anthropologist of race, gender and popular culture. She resides in Los Angeles.