Oprah's Saving Grace

Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Look up in the sky. It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Oprah Winfrey, television's super-shero — the woman who dragged talk television out of the abyss of daytime tomfoolery and crafted a talk show so spirited and engaging that the free world bought into a kinder, gentler talk-show model in which change was, in fact, a good thing.

Winfrey's willingness to try a new approach to daytime television — segments that attempted to address topics with dignity and treat guests with kindness and respect — became the blueprint for success in daytime television. The Oprah Winfrey Show was a talk show that mattered, making television history with record-breaking ratings and popularity, while propelling Winfrey to billionaire status.


After 25 years of surefire success, Winfrey decided to test the waters by trading in a talk show for a network. On New Year's Day of 2011, Winfrey officially launched OWN, promising to provide "original series and specials, all focused on entertaining, informing and inspiring people to live their best lives."

Fast-forward to 2012, and Winfrey has been in the professional fight of her life, keeping a network going that has been plagued by low ratings and bad press. You may recall what many thought was the premature firing of industry veteran and then-OWN CEO Christina Norman in May 2011 because of those low ratings. Other high-profile incidents include Winfrey's Twitter fiasco, the firing of 30 employees, pulling Rosie O'Donnell's much-hyped but mostly flat talk show and admitting to her mistakes in the first year of the network.

What folks haven't been talking about is the comeback story that is in the works with the recent success of Sweetie Pie's, the network's highest-rated show, according to Adweek. Winfrey, a woman who can never be counted out, is regrouping and finding her footing with programming that inspires people to live their best lives — people like Sweetie Pie's owner Robbie Montgomery, who is chasing her dream of building a new restaurant and including her complicated family in the process.

The struggle of Montgomery, who is African American, to achieve her dream while working with the family she was given is a universal struggle. It's as much a show about succeeding in business as it is about getting a second chance in life to pursue a dream. Montgomery is a former soul singer; her son and business partner, Tim, used to be incarcerated.

While the show can be seen as a departure from Winfrey's usual formula for success, Sweetie Pie's also reflects Winfrey's struggle: her dream of owning a network, which represents her second shot at greatness in television, and struggling with her professional family to achieve this goal. 

In addition to Sweetie Pie's, which is quite possibly the "realest" reality show I've seen in a long time, Winfrey's Master Class is exceptional programming. It is truly thought-provoking and engaging and demonstrates Winfrey's investment in building people up, while so much of television programming is about tearing people down. Even a skeptic like me can see the beauty and value in a show whose purpose is in tandem with the struggling network's goal of "inspiring people to live their best lives."

While critics wonder aloud if OWN will survive, I believe that it will, not only because Winfrey's record of success is undeniable but also because it appears that the network is making changes in programming that reflect the diversity of Winfrey's fans. The Master Class audiences are a real reflection of the televisual audience that is available to Winfrey and has always supported Winfrey, I might add.

Advertisers and critics need to realize that with a fan base that is so broad, coupled with her experience in television, Winfrey's OWN will not fail, particularly with the media queen at the helm. Will succeeding be an uphill battle? Pretty much, but if anyone is ready for surviving the programming battle and winning the ratings war, it is Winfrey.

As viewers learn in the Master Class programming, there is as much beauty in the struggle — which can be painful, complicated and arduous — as there is in the final outcome. It is this struggle, along with high-quality programming like Sweetie Pie's and Master Class, that will propel Winfrey to her dream.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.