Oprah Winfrey sees 'rocky times' ahead as OWN channel launches

TV mogul Oprah Winfrey says her new network, OWN, is aimed at changing people's lives – but she acknowledges the struggle of keeping audiences interested.

Fred Prouser/Reuters
Oprah Winfrey is interviewed as part of the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif., on Thursday.

This has been the week of Oprah.

Her very own cable channel, OWN (for the Oprah Winfrey Network) rolled out on Jan. 1 to generally positive reviews. The 24-hour network invites viewers to walk through the landscape that has been developing in the television mogul’s mind for decades. From interviews with what she calls her all-stars to a reality show offering winners a TV talk show of their very own, this is Oprah turned inside-out – programming that reflects her world view, her vision for the future, and her very sense of purpose, not just in the media universe, but in the grander scheme of life.

She sat down with reporters Thursday evening during the Television Critics Association’s semi-annual press tour, with perhaps an uncharacteristic flinch at being on the other end of the interview couch.

“I’m scared,” she joked, adding, “how does this work?”

But once the questions about her childhood, her life goals, and criteria for the channel began to flow, there was little uncertainty in her voice.

“This has been a revelatory week for me,” she says. Not only have she and her team worked “very hard” to bring this vision to life, but she says she is holding fast to the idea that what is to come will be “even greater.”

The road ahead is not an easy one, she acknowledges – there is a lot of self-help material already out there. "We’re going to have some, you know, perhaps rocky times with the channel, keeping people there and keeping people motivated to continue watching," she says.

The channel debuted with 1 million prime-time viewers – four times the highest number of the Discovery Health Network, the channel that previously occupied her slot. The number has dipped slightly, but OWN executives reportedly are optimistic that the new channel could be profitable within the year. The network – a joint venture with Discovery Networks – reportedly cost some $200 million to launch.

Money, says Oprah, is a good thing only if it can “serve a route to love. It doesn’t do you any good if you can’t use it to bring more love, more understanding, more connection. Otherwise,” she says, “you just got some shoes.”

And so, for the billionaire entrepreneur this venture is about producing content that will change people’s lives.

She says, however, that she has learned a thing or two about being too presumptuous about her work. A decade ago, she notes that after a flurry of feedback from fans telling her that her talk show had changed their lives, she actually adopted the slogan for her show. She says a thoughtful critic took her down a notch about such presumption. Now, she says, transformative programs are for the viewers to define, not her.

Nonetheless, she does not shy away from her hopes and dreams for the channel: “A new kind of television where people would respond to the idea of something meaningful and positive in their lives, not just feeding them sweetness, but feeding them something that could be nurturing for their spirit, for their soul, for their mind – mind food,” she says.

It took actually seeing the channel unroll before real viewers, with real advertising, she says, to understand what she’s done – “where you are the 'OW' of the 'OWN' and what that really means.” She says the experience has made her reflect on her personal journey from a small town in Mississippi. She recalls walking down a long dirt road, then standing before a picture window at Sears, watching a television and begging her grandma to buy one. No way, said her grandmother, because TV was “the devil’s work."

Coming from such an unprepossessing start, she says she realizes ”how absolutely extraordinary it is when you tell your story or critique your story – how absolutely extraordinary it is that I can sit in this place with my name on a network.”

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