Oprah, Part 2: We Get Some Unexpected Support for Our Position That Oprah Is Wrong About TV Programming Today. Plus Some Ideas About Where OWN Must Go

Jan 7, 2011

Las Vegas–Greetings from Las Vegas and the annual Consumer Electronics Show. I went to a keynote session this morning (I’m writing this on Thursday night, Jan. 6, 2011) and watched Ivan Seidenberg, the chairman and CEO of Verizon, interview Jeff Bewkes, the chairman and CEO of Time Warner.

It was as if Seidenberg and Bewkes had read my blog entry earlier this week, wherein I criticized Oprah Winfrey for dumping on TV programming.

In the January issue of her O magazine Oprah had said, “In recent years I started to feel that, ‘Gee, television has lost its mind.’ There’s no mindfulness there anymore.” She continued, “Television doesn’t make me feel good. I literally do not have it on at any time in my personal space. … 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 just won’t allow it. If you wanted to drive me insane that’s what you’d do. You would put me in a room where the television was never turned off.”

At CES, during the keynote session, Verizon’s Seidenberg asked Time Warner’s Bewkes, “Jeff, I’ve heard you say that we’re in the golden era of TV. What’s that mean?”

Bewkes replied, “I think the first golden era was when TV was invented. The second one is now.

“You can look at that two ways. Since we’re here at CES I think we should look at the data: Everything’s up. Viewership is up. Subscriptions are up. Ratings are up. Advertising is up. Programming budgets are up. Diversity of networks and shows are up. So all this is happening. Very vital and healthy business.

“The second way to look at this–and I’d really ask all of you to think about this–is look at the quality. And I realize it’s a subjective thing. But if you think of the talent, in front of the camera, behind the camera, that’s now working on television, that we used to think of working primarily on the big film screen, we’ve now got more and more talent doing more and more diverse, breakthrough things on television than ever before.

“The programming originality, the role it has in the life of our culture and your lives, has never been stronger than it is today.

“Now, I’ve got some biases, so I think of shows like ‘Boardwalk Empire’ or ‘The Pacific,’ on HBO. Obviously my bias. Many more than that. ‘Rizzoli & Isles’ and ‘The Closer’ on Turner. ‘Mad Men’ on AMC, Discovery Network, your favorite sports. Every one of you has really strong engagement and connection with some of this programming. More diversity and, actually, more different things than you used to have 20-30 years ago. So this is the best programming explosion in more than a generation.”

While Bewkes’ support of my position was unexpected, it’s not unexpected that the chief of a major media company with major dealings in the TV business would be a fan of TV.

We just happen to think he’s right.

Still, as I also mentioned in my last entry, Oprah is not alone in thinking that what’s on TV is crap, and I cited the fact that it was back in 1961 that then FCC Chairman Newton Minow coined the term “vast wasteland” in a speech to describe what was on TV.

Minow has said a number of times since giving that now-classic speech that he would have hoped that what would have been remembered from what he was saying was that TV should do more programming in the “public interest.”

Indeed, that’s one of the big knocks on TV.

Three years before Minow’s speech, the TV pioneer perhaps most influential in the early days of TV programming made the same complaint. That pioneer is the late father of actress Sigourney Weaver, Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, who was president of NBC before being forced out in 1956. He is credited with coming up with the ideas for the “Today” and “Tonight” shows, as well as creating a number of other business and entertainment concepts adopted by TV at the time.

Weaver is legendary for writing long memos when he was at NBC, and in one he wrote about TV’s mission: “Television must be the instrument which prepares us for progress into tomorrow’s good society or steels us to fight for our democratic way of life.”

Two years after he left NBC, Weaver was asked about that memo when he appeared on “The Mike Wallace Interview” on Sept. 8, 1958. It was a time when the Cold War was heating up. Here’s what Weaver told Mike Wallace::

“I’m disappointed in what’s been happening in the last couple of years.” He continued: “[TV’s] really reducing its overall mission to doing nothing but some news and largely a story-telling medium. That is, all the shows are really either game shows or story-telling shows. [TV] should reflect, as a communications medium, the whole richness and pluralism of our society. In other words, we should have all the magic of live performance in the New York theater, we should have the great issues in the documentaries and telementaries presented–we should have all of the people passing across our sets. It’s a port, you know, through which you can look out on the entire world. But if you aim it only at a film projector and show the cans out of Hollywood, together with some game shows that can be presented cheaply and get pretty good audiences on a commercial value, you are degrading the service, and I’m afraid that’s what’s happening.”

Later in the interview Wallace asked Weaver what TV needs to do. Weaver said: “I think we should be having a great important report to the nation at least once a month by each of the networks, at night, in [prime time]. I think we should have a news service that really spends a lot of money in developing a coverage of this country and everything that happens in it, live and with tape, that is far beyond what we are presently doing. I think that beyond the information programs–and there should be all sorts of informational telementaries–that we should be going into the cultural field and presenting all the good things that we know people, when they have a chance to learn about, will become interested in. Their tastes upgraded, their standards elevated.”

Of course now we have a number of all news networks that are on 24/7.

On the cultural side, TV has struggled with showcasing what might be referred to as the “classical” arts. In the 1980s CBS Cable was critically acclaimed but didn’t make it as business proposition, and neither did The Entertainment Channel. No relation to E!, The Entertainment Channel was a now mostly forgotten joint venture between RCA and Rockefeller Center that got 40% of its programming from the BBC. Furthermore, a planned PBS channel focused primarily on the “classic” arts never got launched. Two other channels that were somewhat broader in scope, Bravo and ARTS, became much broader, the latter evolving into A&E.

Which brings us full circle back to the Oprah Winfrey Network and Oprah’s vision that programming on her network should reflect the mantra “living your best life.” Of course Oprah is no snob, so she has always focused mostly on popular culture with a smattering of “classical” culture.

But given Oprah’s rant about TV today in O, I’d be surprised if she wouldn’t say much of what Weaver was saying applies today. And given that belief, OWN does need to set its bar higher.

In the short time since OWN’s debut last weekend, I’ve heard some grumbling that its programming thus far, both on-air and what’s been previewed to come, is somewhat disappointing given that the network has had two years to prepare since it was first annou
nced.

I understand the complaint.

Given the great support team Oprah’s put together, they should be able to do better. There’s Christina Norman and Tom Freston, both proven veterans from MTV. There’s Peter Liguori, who was a marketing maven in the consumer product and Madison Ave. worlds long before honing his content skills at FX and Fox.

And there’s Lisa Erspamer, OWN’s chief creative officer, who is a longtime veteran at Harpo, the company that produces Oprah’s syndicated show. Erspamer is the only member of this group whom I don’t know, but clearly Winfrey thinks she has the chops to be among OWN’s inner circle.

To be successful, Oprah needs to come out with some more ideas based on her living your best life theme.

First, don’t stick to a strictly non-fiction formula. Her partner, Discovery, doesn’t with its new network with Hasbro, and with some of its international fare. Oprah should insist that it doesn’t with OWN either. Fiction programming likely means more costs, but the rewards can be greater as well.

Also, in her piece in O, Oprah decried that there were not more programs on TV today like she remembered loving in her childhood. Well, if some of these old shows aren’t already airing on TV Land or Nick-at-Night, she should buy the rights and show them on OWN.

She shouldn’t limit herself. The networks have largely abandoned soap operas, both in daytime and prime time. Well, OWN, come up with one. It’ll exemplify living your best life, including some cheating, conniving adulterer or adulteress who is living their best EVIL life.

That’s another must-do: Don’t take yourselves all that seriously all the time.

Given the talent behind the scenes that OWN has now and can get, there’s no reason they can’t find shows that work. Will a number of them fail? Yes. So what? That’s what TV’s all about. And yes, that’s also what much of the journey of living our best lives is about.#

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