Open Mic

Oprah Knows the False Power of Ego. But Can She Recognize Its Latest Implication for Her Professional Life?

Chuck Ross Posted October 10, 2011 at 8:06 AM

It’s the "CBS Evening News," and it’s eerily familiar. The lead story is about Mitt Romney and his run for the Republican nomination for President of the United States

The newscaster then intones, “Also tonight, a wallet full of worries. Wall Street drops sharply after government reports raise new fears of a recession and inflation.”

Yet a third story in the newscast is “America`s biggest bank posts its biggest loss ever.”

The date of this newscast I’m quoting is Jan. 15, 2008. There’s also a short item in that news broadcast announcing that Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications have formed a joint venture called the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Just three days earlier, the 11th episode of a new series, “iCarly,” had debuted on Nickelodeon, and the series looked like it was going to become another hit for that network.

Just 13 days after that newscast, “In Treatment” debuted on HBO.

In three months from now, it will be the four-year anniversary of the announcement of OWN. “iCarly” has indeed been a huge hit, and “In Treatment,” winner of two Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Peabody, is no longer on-air.

Hundreds of other TV shows have been on the airwaves in the intervening years as well.

But it’s only tonight--Oct. 10, 2011--we were told last week in a conference call with reporters by Rosie O’Donnell, that OWN begins “its actual, real launch.”

“It was sort of a soft launch in January, and now we begin again,” O’Donnell explained.

The two shows that debut tonight are Rosie’s new talk show and “Oprah’s Lifeclass.”

The latter will see Oprah dip into her treasure trove of some 4,000 plus syndicated “Oprah Winfrey” episodes to illustrate, in Oprah’s own words, “The best of what I’ve learned and the best of what I want to share.”

Tonight’s first “lesson” on her “Lifeclass” is “The false power of ego.”

Hmm.

I like Oprah. What she accomplished during the 25-year run of her syndicated show is nothing short of extraordinary.

Entertainment Weekly’s estimable TV critic, Ken Tucker, had it right when he wrote this past May that Oprah “didn’t have to use [Phil] Donahue or any other talk-show host as her model, or rebel against those models. All she had to do was understand herself (that is, figure out what it was she wanted from life and trust that those desires were also what millions of other Americans wanted too) and then be herself. And being herself on camera is one of the greatest talents Winfrey possesses; she’s right up near the top of naturals when the red light goes on; Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite were her equals, not her superiors.”

Tucker continued, “There had never been anyone on TV like Winfrey before: a woman whose body shape didn’t conform to conventional notions of TV-personality attractiveness. A black woman whose interests, ideas, and curiosity cut across racial lines to appeal to the widest possible range of demographics. A star who pulled off a contradiction that is always at the heart of American stardom: being wealthy, powerful, and willful while coming through the TV screen as frequently humbled and always in touch with ordinary citizens’ lives and needs.”

I was thinking about Oprah and OWN last week when another iconic American, Steve Jobs, passed away.

The national and international outpouring of praise for Jobs’ accomplishments was spontaneous and well-deserved. What an incredible story, what an incredible life.

One of Jobs' life lessons for the rest of us is not to fear failure. On the path to innovation and changing our world, Jobs and Apple had their share of failures. To name a few, as recounted last week at the FrumForum:

“[T]he Apple III computer–the first PC built by Apple from the bottom up rather than as a hobbyist project–was so poorly designed that the company advised owners to pick it up and drop it a few inches whenever it stopped working. The Lisa, a personal computer that, if fully equipped, would have cost almost $20,000 in today’s money, sold very poorly (no surprise) and lost a bundle for Apple. Early Macintosh computers were slow, balky, lacked the color graphics that even the Commodore Vic-20 had, and broke far too often.”

There have been other notable failures by Apple and, sometimes separately, by Jobs—such as the Newton and the NeXT computer.

But Jobs was never afraid to say, after a time, that these products did not work in the marketplace, and he moved on.

At some point perhaps Oprah needs to say that running a network is not her forte.

And maybe that time is sooner than later.

Despite whatever hype one wants to attach to tonight’s “actual, real launch” of OWN, the truth of the matter is that OWN was announced almost four years ago.

Look around. Since that time Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Snooki have become part of the Zeitgeist, as have the Droid, the iPad and the movie “Avatar.”

On TV since that time we’ve had “The Good Wife,” “Modern Family” and “True Blood.”

And on OWN we’ve gotten … well, I don’t know about you, but I liked that behind-the-scenes series about Oprah’s last season of her syndicated show a lot.

OWN replaced Discovery Health, and the idea was that it would be a more popular destination for viewers.

According to the New York Post last week, “So far, OWN’s ratings are trailing those of predecessor Discovery Health. In the third quarter, OWN drew 15 percent fewer women ages 25 to 54 years old -- the target category for advertisers -- compared to last year, according to Nielsen figures."

The Post also noted, “Discovery needs OWN to be successful, as it has spent more than $200 million to fund the channel and has sold major marketers such as Procter & Gamble on multiyear ad deals.”

$200 million? Oh my. If I were a Discovery stockholder I’d be more than a little pissed.

Look, Rosie’s talk show will probably be fine. She did an outstanding job during the first iteration of her talk show, and she really understands pop culture. But Rosie certainly did not need Oprah or OWN to return to TV.

And “Oprah’s Lifeclass” is Oprah doing one of the things she does best--getting in-touch with her inner teacher. It’s a role in which she feels comfortable and in which she excels.

But that’s a program. It’s not a network.

Back in May I wrote the following:

There are a lot of ways to encourage people to live their best lives without the sledgehammer approach that too many OWN programs mostly use now.

First of all, show some movies such as “Sullivan’s Travels” on OWN. What Oprah did with her book club is the stuff of legends. And legions of Oprah’s fans will tune into Oprah herself presenting “Oprah’s Must-See Movie Classics” on OWN on Friday nights, presented uncut and with no commercials by Dove or Target or P&G or one of OWN’s other premier sponsors. Oprah will bookend the beginning and ending of the screenings with her comments, a la TCM’s Robert Osborne.

And OWN has got to get into scripted programming, no doubt about it.

Oprah loves the TV shows with which she grew up. OWN needs to have its audience--and a bigger audience than it gets now--love its shows as well.

Let’s develop a signature drama. How about one we’d call “Daring to Dream.” It’s set in Baltimore, circa 1964. An African American tween, originally from the South, is watching “The Ed Sullivan Show” one Sunday night and sees Diana Ross and the Supremes perform. The performance captures her imagination and she decides she wants to follow in Ross’ footsteps. First stop--trying to get on the local dance show on TV. This drama--with music--would be from Warner Bros. and executive producers John Waters and Oprah Winfrey.

I then made suggestions for other shows. You can read about them if you click here.

Then I wrote:

Oprah now has the time to devote to the network with her name on it. Let’s hope that she and OWN’s new president, Peter Liguori, see how great OWN can really become. To do so they don’t have to re-invent TV, but they do need to take the road somewhat less traveled, and mix both fiction and non-fiction programming. If they do that, they have a good chance to develop a network that picks up where Oprah's talk show left off, making a difference in people’s lives.

To be honest, I’m having second thoughts. Since that time OWN has hired Susanne Daniels to help with the network’s programming.

Daniels has got a terrific pedigree, having been an ace programmer for Lifetime and, before that, the WB.

But I’m beginning to think that the problem is Oprah. As those of us know who are big fans of the behind-the-scenes series about Oprah’s last season of syndicated programs, it’s clear that Oprah is running the show. Yes, there were hundreds of people at Harpo working hard to make sure each show was prepared to a fare-thee-well, but when all was said and done, whether each episode of her syndicated show succeeded or not was on Oprah’s shoulders.

And, as Jobs was clearly the driver of the products Apple produced--regardless whether a particular product was actually his idea--so, clearly, Oprah wants to be the driver of what’s on OWN.

But not everyone is a great TV programmer. Brandon Tartikoff was a great TV programmer. Fred Silverman is justifiably legendary. Les Moonves is a great TV programmer.

Even as clearly busy as Oprah has been over the past four years, if she were a great TV programmer--or really wanted to be one--we’d be getting much better programming on OWN today.

Oprah admitted the challenge of OWN when she told Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg last month in an interview that OWN is “a lot harder than I ever imagined. If anybody asks you if you want a network, think about that.”

It’s time Oprah took a page from Steve Jobs’ playbook. She needs to move on to her next great thing.

Oprah knew when it was time to pull the plug on her syndicated talk show. Her next “ah-ha” moment, I hope, is the realization that her time is far better spent being the great TV interviewer and teacher that she is rather than trying to be the great TV network programmer that she is not.

Indeed, as Oprah will say in her "Lifeclass" tonight, “beware the false power of ego.”