Open Mic

Memo to Oprah: Your OWNerous Assessment of TV Today Is Just Plain Wrong. But Here's What You're Getting Right, as Well

Chuck Ross Posted January 3, 2011 at 12:54 AM

Here’s a truism about TV that bears repeating: At every moment in its commercial history, TV has been accused of being a vast wasteland.

Yes, the exact phrase referring to TV as a “vast wasteland” wasn’t coined until FCC Chairman Newton Minow used it in a speech given at the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in May 1961, but please, the sentiment has always been there: that what’s on TV is junk, mindless, crapola.

The latest person singing this refrain is Oprah Winfrey.

In the cover story of the January issue of her “O” magazine, Winfrey talks about why she wanted to start the Oprah Winfrey Network, which launched Jan. 1, 2011:

Interviewer (“O” editor-in-chief Susan Casey): Well, we need [the Oprah Winfrey Network] now more than ever. So much on television these days is unwatchable.”

Oprah: It's just created to blur the senses. It feels like Halloween candy. Gobble it down and at the end you don't feel better—you're like, Why did I do that to myself? In recent years I started to feel that, Gee, television has lost its mind. There's no mindfulness there anymore. You used to be able to watch shows and come away with something—like with my favorite program growing up, ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’

Susan Casey: Or ‘Wild Kingdom!’ I loved that.

Oprah: Or ‘Wild Kingdom.’ You would watch it, and even if you didn't learn something, there would be a thoughtfulness about it. An interesting aspect—something that sort of opened you up a little bit, that brought a little piece of light into whatever it is you were doing. ‘Bonanza,’ for goodness' sake! Any number of shows for a long, long, long time—television actually did that. And in recent years I started to notice it doesn't. Television doesn't make me feel good. There's nothing about it that makes me feel good. I literally do not have it on at any time in my personal space, be it in the office, be it in my makeup room. If I walk in and it's on, I will say, "Turn it off," unless it's something I need to know or need to hear. I just won't have it. I will not allow the mindless chattering of Halloween candy. I just won't allow it. If you wanted to drive me insane, that's what you would do. You would put me in a room where the television was never turned off.

Of course in 1961, when it was Minow decrying that what was on TV was a mindless wasteland, it was smack in the middle of Winfrey’s childhood (she was 7 years old at the time) and those shows she mentioned, “Bonanza” and her favorite, “The Andy Griffith Show,” were on TV.

Minow’s version of the TV is crap speech ran as follows: First, he asked TV station executives to watch their own stations for a day.

Then he said, “Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.”

Winfrey is no less demeaning of and condescending about the medium that’s made her a billionaire.

With her remarks in O about how great TV was during her childhood, Oprah is on the record that Minow was wrong. No, it’s NOW that TV is a vast, mindless wasteland, Winfrey intones.

It’s only true if she’s tone deaf. From Larry David to David Shore & Katie Jacobs (“House”) to Jeffrey Jacob (J.J.) Abrams to Abramoff, Jack (documentary on HBO), ad infinitum, if Winfrey really believes TV today is the mindless chattering of Halloween candy, our reaction can only be non-plussed. We reply, “You Don’t Know Jack,” let alone not knowing other terrific characters--real and fictional--on TV recently, including Alicia Florrick, Sue Sylvester, Richard Whitman, Dexter Morgan, the late Capt. Phil Harris, Sheldon Cooper, Jax Teller, Gloria Delgado-Pritchett, Peter Lattimer, and Valentina Vilalba Rangel.

Despite Winfrey’s dissing of TV today, the idea of creating an Oprah Winfrey Network based upon the same theme as O magazine—living your best life—seems to me to be a good one. It’s a theme about which Winfrey is passionate, and that’s an important predictor for long-term success. Powerful people with passion—think Ted Turner and the creation of TBS, TNT and CNN, or Roger Ailes and the Fox News Network—are a huge plus in overcoming the inevitable pitfalls and obstacles most new networks face.

While Oprah says she long ago—in May 1992—thought of creating an Oprah Winfrey Network, kudos to her OWN partner, Discovery CEO David Zaslav, and his wife, who reportedly came up with the idea of a network based on the same theme O magazine is based upon.

As for the quality of the shows on OWN, it’s clearly too early to make a judgment about them. I watched a few over the weekend and mostly liked what I saw, despite how derivative of other programs they may be. “Oprah Presents Master Class”—OWN’s nod of sorts to Sundance’s “Iconoclasts” (though without its brilliant pairing of two creative people at once)—is fairly insightful.

One show I particularly liked was “Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes,” which chronicles this final season of Winfrey’s daily syndicated program. (Maddeningly, though, in the manner of cable shows that don’t really have enough footage to fill their hour or half-hour time slots, too much footage is repeated just before and right after commercial breaks.)

In the most telling moment of the two “Behind the Scenes” shows I saw, two producers of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” had a confrontation over the decision to revisit Williamson, W. Va., the site of a controversial Winfrey show back in 1987. The controversy was over a young man, Mike Sisco, who had AIDS, and who had used the city swimming pool. When he was outed, the city closed the pool. The original program showed that most of the townspeople supported the closing of the pool, and condemned the man for being gay. Sisco died in 1994.

In this segment of one of the “Behind the Scenes” shows, senior producer Jack Mori is telling co-producer Brian Piotrowicz that he is shocked and fascinated that now, 23 years later, they had not been able to find anyone in Williamson whose opinion had changed about the incident.

Brian: You find it fascinating and I find it hurtful. I don’t get why we’re giving these people a voice again. As a gay man I have a strong opinion about the Williamson show. There are millions of people watching, so we have to think about ‘Is this person worth interviewing?’ and 'What do they really have to say?’ Because what I’m hearing from the [advance producing] team is that [the townspeople] haven’t changed—they still don’t like gay people, they still think it’s a sin.

We have 130 slots left to change the world, to make our mark, and I don’t understand why this would be one of them.

Jack: What can I say, Brian? Forty-three percent of America believes the same thing they do—

Brian: Eighty percent of Germany agreed with Hitler.

Jack: That’s a perfect example. If you’re a journalist do you ignore World War II just because you don’t want to spread hate?

Brian: But we don’t portray the reality on our show. We pick and choose what we want based upon criteria of how the show is produced.

Jack: I’m sorry you’re offended by that, but—

Brian: What do you mean you’re sorry I’m offended by that? It’s offensive. Of course I’m offended.

Brian then said that the only way the show would work for him is if a bunch of the townspeople had had epiphanies over the past 23 years that what they said and how they thought about gays in 1987 was wrong.

As it turned out, on the show one person, a 74-year-old man, did admit to having such an epiphany, and apologized to the gay man’s family.

It would have been worthwhile then to hear Brian’s reaction to the finished show. However, we didn’t get that, perhaps because it would have put a damper on things and ended the episode on a sour note. And as any regular reader of O magazine knows, the philosophy of living your best life almost always calls for cheers, not jeers.#