Chuck Ross

Oprah: Great Job on the Finale. Now You Need Some Ants in Your Plants

May 26, 2011

Don’t know about you, but I was totally blown away by the elegance, grace and class of Oprah on her final syndicated show.

Oprah talked about how the show, once it found its sea legs, became about empowering us, her audience. About our finding ways to live our best lives as we watched Oprah and her guests struggle to do so as well.

It was a wonderful summing up of our relationship with Oprah over the past 25 years. It reminded me of a book by one of my favorite writers, Somerset Maugham, who, at age 64, wrote his “The Summing Up.” He said it was neither an autobiography nor a book of recollections. Instead, he said, “In this book I am going to try and sort out my thoughts on subjects that have chiefly interested me during the course of my life.”

That’s what Oprah did in her last show.

Maugham still had a great act to follow after he wrote his summing up. He later wrote “The Razor’s Edge,” one of the best novels I have ever read.

And Oprah, 56,  finally can devote the time and energy she needs to devote to OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. It needs her attention.

One of my favorite shows this season has been on OWN. It’s “Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes.” I find it great fun to watch.

But it finally dawned on me the other day that the biggest drawback to the series is that what it really is is one of the featured extras on a DVD box set of “The Final Season of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show.’”

And “Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes” is the best series on OWN.

OWN is made up of sideshows. It’s time for OWN to put on some series that are Main Events.

Part of the problem is how OWN was conceived–basically as a TV version of “O The Oprah Magazine,” which has the tagline “Live Your Best Life.”

The tagline is fine and can work for OWN as well. What’s not fine are the shows on OWN.

Part of it is that OWN needs to loosen up.

First, the folks who run OWN, including Oprah, need to watch Preston Sturges’ 1941 movie classic “Sullivan’s Travels.”

A movie director–Sullivan–who’s had big hits with such comedies as “Ants in Your Plants of 1939”–and yes, it’s "Plants," not "Pants"– and “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” decides that those films are meaningless and that his next movie must be very, very serious. Here’s the marvelous opening dialogue from the movie.

Sullivan: This picture is an ANSWER to Communists. It shows we’re awake and not dunking our heads in the sand like a bunch of ostriches. I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems that confront the average man.

[Studio Executive] Lebrand: But with a little sex.

Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity–a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.

Lebrand: But with a little sex.

Sullivan: With a little sex in it.

[Another Studio Executive] Hadrian: How about a nice musical?

Sullivan: How can you talk about musicals at a time like this? With the world committing suicide, with corpses piling up in the street, with grim death gargling at you from every corner, with people slaughtered like sheep!

Hadrian: Maybe they’d like to forget that.

Sullivan: Then why do they hold [a serious movie they had just screened] over for a fifth week at the Music Hall? For the ushers?

Hadrian: It died in Pittsburgh.

Lebrand: Like a dog.

Sullivan: What do they know in Pittsburgh?

Lebrand: They know what they like.

Sullivan: If they knew what they liked, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh. That’s no argument.

The remainder of the movie has Sullivan finding out how the poor and downtrodden live. In the end he realizes how uplifting so many people find his comedies, and thus how important they really are.

So what’s this got to do with Oprah and OWN? It means let’s lighten up folks. 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 premiere 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.

Here’s another one. It’s a Western called “Stagecoach Mary.” This fictional drama series is inspired by the life of a real African American woman who did indeed have the nickname Stagecoach Mary.

According to an article in Junior Scholastic: “Mary Fields, born a slave in a log cabin in Tennessee, went west in 1884, when she was 52 years old. She ended up in Cascade, Montana, with the nuns for whom she worked. Fields was a towering figure on the Western frontier. She was ‘six feet tall, weighed more than 200 pounds, wore men’s clothes, and puffed thick black cigars.’ A powerful woman made strong by years of heavy slave work, Fields refused to put up with ill treatment from anyone. She lost her job with the nuns when she got into a gunfight with another hired hand. But Fields was tough enough to make her own way on the frontier. She carried the U.S. mail, ran a restaurant, and drove a stagecoach, which earned her the nickname ‘Stagecoach Mary.’ ”

Sunday nights will be family nights on OWN. Back on Sunday nights during the 1964 TV season, NBC ran “Profiles in Courage,” dramatizations from the nonfiction book of the same name that was written by John F. Kennedy and won a Pulitzer Prize. Before his death, Kennedy had actually approved the scripts for this show, according to “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows” by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh.

The stories of ordinary Americans who have had some extraordinary experiences that will be dramatized for OWN’s new “Profiles in Courage” will be culled from the 4,000-plus episodes of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” The drama segments on this series will be introduced by Oprah and Michelle Obama.

Recently NBC passed on the pilot of “Wonder Woman.” After a revamping, the show will be picked up by OWN. Its main character will be Hispanic, and will live in a modest, multi-ethnic area of Los Angeles.

Let’s not forget comedy. Two African-American female DJ’s from a Chicago radio station–who are also best friends–are on-the-lam through a very complicated misunderstanding. They are forced to hide out all around America while they are on the road. This very funny buddy road comedy series is from executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King.

Oprah has said that her Harpo staff in Chicago wi
ll become OWN employees. These folks are experienced at producing one of the finest talk shows in TV history. I don’t know if they are a fit with Rosie, who is planning a talk show on OWN, and it doesn’t seem as though Oprah is going to jump back into the genre.

But let’s find a host for a signature talk show on OWN built around this incredibly talented staff Oprah already has in place in Chicago.

With imagination and effort, OWN can become a great network.

I just read that OWN has picked up a reality show in the well-worn bridal category. OK, but I have my doubts that it’ll do anything for OWN. On the other hand, OWN seems to be have gotten on a better track with compelling reality fare with the new "Why Not? With Shania Twain." We’ll have to see more episodes to make a clearer judgment.

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.#


  1. Is this a column or a pitch meeting?

  2. Hey, Chuck, we’re all not chugging that
    New Age, spiritualism feel-good koolade that megalomaniac Oprah is dishing out.
    We can’t all sit around contemplating our navals–waiting for our servant to bring the limo around.
    I’m still waiting for Oprah to do a segment about that NEWSWEEK cover story which pointed out many of her ‘experts’ engage in total medical QUACKERY ! Wake me up when she does!
    Oprah has done tremendous good, but her ego seems bigger than a Chicago skyscraper.

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