Can Oprah Stand Out from the Cable Crowd?

With a new cable channel, Oprah tries to spread her star power and self-power gospel over 24 hours

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Robin Layton / OWN

On Jan. 1, Oprah Winfrey launches her cable channel, OWN (for Oprah Winfrey Network). But you could argue that Oprah has actually been running her own network for years. A successful, long-running daytime show like Oprah's is a TV network in microcosm, bundling several "shows" in the form of regular segments: it is at once an interview show, a self-help show, a game show, a reality show, a personal-finance and literature and fashion show — all built around a common brand and themes.

In the case of The Oprah Winfrey Show, those themes are self-actualization and celebrity. Or maybe self-actualization through celebrity: the idea is that by adopting the best personal habits and studying the life and spiritual practices of Oprah and Oprah-approved role models, you can, as she says, "be your best self."

That too is the overarching credo of OWN, her basic-cable joint venture with Discovery Communications, which will, after Oprah's syndicated show ends this year, become the chief repository of the Word of Oprah on earth. Or at least in the roughly 80 million households (out of over 100 million with cable or satellite) that will receive it at launch.

Some of OWN's higher-profile shows, like talker The Rosie O'Donnell Show, won't start until later in the year. (Oprah BFF Gayle King debuts a daily talk show the channel's first week.) But the handful of shows previewed for critics represent a kind of aggregate mosaic of Oprah's favorite things: famous people, inspirational stories and famous people with inspirational stories.

In Master Class, one of a few shows in which OWN's founder and chief asset will appear, Oprah narrates a biography-and-interview show about stars — Condoleezza Rice, Maya Angelou, Simon Cowell — who embody qualities she admires. When Oprah talks about, say, Jay-Z, it sounds as if she is also talking about herself: "If you don't know who you are before fame hits, you will definitely end up losing yourself in all the opinions around you."

But Oprah's gift is to make it seem as if she is also talking about you. "When the odds are against you and you have the depth of clarity to listen to your own instincts and follow what is true for you," she narrates, "you may not become a Jay-Z, but you will become the best that you can be." You are not just watching a cable bio about a zillionaire rap mogul. You are growing as a person. Oprah sprinkles the second person throughout Master Class, as if to imply that you too could be personal friends with Diane Sawyer: "She's a great writer. When she sends you a note, even if it's just an e-mail, you have it framed." I will do that!

Other celeb-oriented OWN shows will include Ask Oprah's All-Stars, in which Dr. Phil, Suze Orman and Mehmet Oz will field live-audience questions like a team of life-improvement Superfriends. Dr. Phil, Orman and other Oprah personalities will later aid Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson in Finding Sarah, a celebreality show Fergie says she's doing "to heal my mind, body and spirit" (the reality-TV-as-spa approach).

But there are also a number of non-celeb shows that mirror the lifestyle offerings of cable channels like TLC — with an Oprah spin. There's a house-decluttering show, Enough Already! with Peter Walsh, whose real focus is on unloading pathos and unpacking emotional baggage. There are two kinds of clutter, Walsh says: "memory clutter," which recalls the past, and "I might need it" clutter, which anxiously anticipates the future. Each one "robs you of the only thing that you have, which is now." Suddenly my pigsty office is 10 times as depressing as it already was.

The themes get more overtly spiritual in The Miracle Detectives, in which a Mulder-and-Scully believer-and-skeptic pair investigate miraculous claims (spoiler alert: it's all about how you want to see it!). In the first episode of Our America with Lisa Ling, the former co-host of The View profiles a purported faith healer.

Your Best Self, Soon
It all sounds like, well, another cable channel. Whether OWN can distinguish itself is a big question, because while Oprah has ruled syndication for 25 years, cable has been learning from her and adapting her offerings (for instance, on channels like Oxygen, in whose founding Oprah played a role a decade ago). Its launch hasn't been entirely smooth: OWN has tried to extract premium rates from carriers and advertisers, to some resistance, and its first programming chief was replaced before the channel even launched. Even if it's a business success, it may not have the thunder-from-Olympus cultural clout that one daily hour of concentrated Oprah does now.

The key to Oprah's bid to stand out lies in OWN's ingenious name: building on her quarter-century relationship with the audience to imply a feeling of personal ownership in the network. So it's unsurprising that one signature program will be Your OWN Show: Oprah's Search for the Next TV Star, in which she and her various protégés will guide contestants in creating TV pilots. The winner, of course, gets to launch a series on OWN. Your best self, it turns out, is a self with a show on Oprah's network.