Earnest uplift is the goal of the Oprah Winfrey Network, and it delivers. Relentlessly.
Creating her own 24-hour cable channel in a cutthroat TV environment is as bold as anything Winfrey’s ever done. Based on early results, though, the programming lacks similar audacity.
“I believe we’re all more alike than we are different,” Winfrey said as OWN began broadcasting over the weekend. She might well have been talking about her new shows.
Even Sunday night’s live, two-hour debut of the weekly “Ask Oprah’s All Stars” was a by-the-numbers exercise featuring Winfrey favorites Phil McGraw, Suze Orman and Mehmet Oz.
After hearing about credit-card woes, weight-loss challenges and constipation, my heart was hardened even to the tribulations of a 52-year-old virgin.
The biggest surprise was how little new ground was broken. Other OWN programs premiering or sneak-previewed this week merely replicate existing cable fare, with only an amped-up emotionalism setting them a short distance apart.
“Enough Already! With Peter Walsh” is the type of de-cluttering home show that fans of Style Network’s “Clean House” will surely recognize (sort and pile, people!), though OWN effectively ratchets up the stakes by choosing hoarders with troubled relationships or fatal diseases.
“Miracle Detectives,” the cheesiest of this week’s offerings, takes its cue from PBS’s “History Detectives” but replaces scholarly sleuthing with junk science and magical thinking.
Pairing true-believer journalist Randall Sullivan with skeptical neuroscientist Indre Viskontas, the show investigates angel photographs (sure looked like glare to me), healing dirt and the like.
Considerably more grounded is “Searching For...,” in which a genealogist helps teary clients track down birth parents and lost relatives. NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” did a better job last year of making visual entertainment from the Google searching of modern genealogy.
Equally soggy, if more original, is “Kidnapped by the Kids,” a reality show in which children commandeer their parents’ lives for a week.
In the first episode, workaholic dad Hank is ambushed at the airport by his wife and three kids, who replace his business trip with a camping getaway and a shopping excursion to OWN sponsor Target.
On a racier note, there’s a verbally explicit sex advice show called “In the Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman.” In the debut episode, Berman helps a 30-something couple whose love life is so miserable the wife prefers snuggling with a laundry basket.
“Oprah Presents Master Class” is a showcase for her celebrity friends, with each program featuring one of them speaking directly to the camera for an hour.
The premiere with Diane Sawyer initially seemed little more than a gauzy, touchy-feely network newscast promo. But Sawyer is nothing if not a charmer, and 60 minutes later I wouldn’t have minded another anecdote about her former employer, Richard Nixon.
Still to come is the reality-show contest “Your OWN Show,” and programs starring Gayle King, Sarah Ferguson, Lisa Ling, the Judds, Ryan and Tatum O’Neal and Rosie O’Donnell. O’Donnell, in particular, might be just the spark needed to raise OWN’s temperature above lukewarm.
Viewers wanting more than pre-packaged optimism could do worse than tune to OWN’s “Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes,” an inside look at the final year of Winfrey’s daytime talk show.
In the second episode, Winfrey flashes the steely temper we always suspected was there. After a nervous producer surprises the boss with an on-air tribute, Winfrey icily responds: “Don’t do that again.”
Now that’s a truth we can all believe.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average (No stars) Worthless
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)