Oprah Winfrey channel debuts Saturday, but is it time for a new network?

Oprah Winfrey, whose successful syndicated show is in its last season, is launching her new cable TV network OWN to start the new year. The move is a risky one, media analysts say.

Courtesy the Oprah Winfrey Network
Oprah Winfrey filming "Master Class," a new show for her upcoming Oprah Winfrey Network.

Television mogul Oprah Winfrey is known for being quick to jump on the latest pop culture trends.

But, with the debut of her very own cable network, OWN (for the Oprah Winfrey Network), it is clear that she is also abundantly patient with the things that matter to her most.

The idea reportedly first came to her back in 1992, when she jotted a memo in her private journal about the possibility of someday having her own network. On Saturday, New Year’s Day, that dream finally comes true.

Beginning at noon Saturday, OWN – a joint venture between Winfrey and the Discovery network that replaces the Discovery Health Channel – will roll out a sneak preview of upcoming shows.

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The lineup includes “Master Class,” a celebrity interview series with influential figures selected by Oprah. Among the notables to be featured are Sidney Poitier, Diane Sawyer and Maya Angelou.

Also on the debut roster: an exploration of social trends from Lisa Ling, “Our America with Lisa Ling”; a family-themed intervention-style reality show, “Kidnapped by the Kids,” in which a group of children take back family time from workaholic parents; and a self-help declutter-your-life tutorial, “Enough Already!” Also coming in January is "Ask Oprah's All Stars," which showcases her top TV "finds" such as Suze Orman, Dr. Phil, and Dr. Mehmet Oz.

Other upcoming programming will feature Rosie O’Donnell, Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, and Wynona and Naomi Judd.

Not 'Oprah TV'

Most noticeable for a new flagship venture – arguably the first self-titled channel in the cable universe – is the extremely low profile of the founder herself as she winds down her syndicated TV show before coming over to OWN.

“This is not about creating Oprah TV,” says OWN CEO Christina Norman, the former MTV president. Oprah is deeply involved in launching the initial shows, Ms. Norman acknowledges, she hand-picked the first eight choices for the “Master Class” interviews. But, she adds, the purpose of the network is to take the vision Oprah has espoused for a quarter of a century on her syndicated TV program and in her magazine and expand that into a full schedule.

“Helping people live their best lives is a vision she shares with millions of people,” says Norman.

While anticipation is high among Oprah loyalists, the risks of moving from her daily, hour-long syndicated show to helming an entire 24/7 cable channel are very real, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

With the growing popularity of streaming online TV, for example, cable is by no means the cutting edge of the entertainment universe anymore, he says, noting that in his three-semester course on the history of television, “cable is in the second semester.”

Enormous competition from other entertainment sources means a new venture will live or die by the presence of hit shows that can cut through the content clutter.

“What the network will have to produce fairly quickly,” says Thompson, “are buzz-worthy shows that will move people to actually locate where this new cable channel is on the schedule.”

An uphill battle

The channel being replaced by NOW, Discovery Health, rarely rose above a few hundred thousand viewers, he points out, adding that while cable can survive with far lower ratings than a broadcast network, without impactful content that brings in meaningful viewers, the channel has little hope of real success.

Branding and marketing expert David Johnson, however, pushes the point further, suggesting that Oprah will be fighting an uphill battle, not just against an entertainment-saturated landscape, but against her own image.

“Oprah has tarnished her image in the past few years and alienated many viewers,” says Mr. Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, a public relations firm.

Prior to Oprah’s endorsement of Barack Obama, he says, she appealed to a wide swath of viewers who felt she was above the sort of partisan nastiness that tainted so much of popular television. But, as she has become more partisan and forceful about her endorsements and preferences, this has turned off many potential viewers.

“This is Oprah over-reaching in a very big way,” Johnson says. The move, he adds, could even turn into a programming fiasco as wrong-headed as when NBC moved Jay Leno to 10 p.m. with disastrous results.

But with 22 programs, OWN CEO Norman says they are taking the long view. “This is not a sprint, it is a marathon.”

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