By Eric Deggans, Times TV/Media Critic
In Print: Monday, October 10, 2011
Remember all that hoopla in January about Oprah Winfrey starting a new cable channel?
Well, forget about much of it. As far as Rosie O'Donnell is concerned, the real launch of the Oprah Winfrey Network starts right now, with the debut tonight of her new 7 p.m. talker The Rosie Show and Winfrey's own Oprah's Lifeclass series at 8 p.m.
"Now that she does have the ability to focus on the channel, it's almost like she's just beginning again," said O'Donnell, speaking to reporters by telephone last week. "For Oprah and the network, we begin the real launch (this week). And like everyone else, I have tremendous belief in her power to do almost anything."
Much as O'Donnell downplays the stakes for OWN ("I don't feel any pressure," she said. "I feel nothing but privileged."), it's hard to avoid the sense that this is a pivotal moment for O'Donnell, Winfrey and OWN.
So far, Winfrey's channel has not been the game-changer many expected, drawing ratings comparable to the low-profile outlet it replaced, Discovery Health Channel. Last month, it averaged about 175,000 viewers each week in prime time. In comparison, an average 1.3 million people watched the just-cancelled CW series H8R.
Part of the reason, say some experts, is that OWN has failed to deliver what every modern cable channel needs: a hit that draws viewers and defines its vision.
"AMC as we know it today was built around Mad Men; MTV is built around Jersey Shore," said Ben Grossman, editor in chief of Broadcasting and Cable magazine. "Oprah's always been a kingmaker in television. She launched Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. But this is the first time we're going to see: Can Oprah be a kingmaker without that (syndicated) show?"
Winfrey herself blames distraction, saying she was preoccupied with the final season of her 25-year-old, massively popular daytime talk show that ended in May, and couldn't focus directly on the cable venture's January debut.
Out went the network's first CEO (replaced temporarily by Discovery executive Peter Liguori and then Winfrey herself), and in came a fleet of new ideas including a Sunday lineup of films from Office star Rainn Wilson's production company (Super Soul Sunday), another unscripted show allowing celebrities to talk about why they're so successful (Visionaries), and reruns of her daytime show reconfigured as a collection of life lessons (Oprah's Lifeclass).
Crowning it all is O'Donnell's Chicago-based show, featuring a live band (led by D—k in a Box co-writer Katreese Barnes), 10 minutes of O'Donnell cracking jokes in a monologue, one celebrity guest for the entire show (tonight: comic Russell Brand) and games like you might see on The Price is Right.
This is also a pivotal moment for O'Donnell, who turned down a more lucrative talk show deal with NBC to jump on the Oprah bandwagon. In recent years, O'Donnell may have lost her old nickname as "Queen of Nice," fighting with the publisher of her now-shuttered magazine and lasting just one year on The View amid controversies over fights with co-hosts and a feud with Donald Trump.
"When I was on The View … the way they got ratings, was arguments," said O'Donnell. "I think on this show we're going to have the time and space to go in-depth on the things we think, without the antagonism and vitriol that was found in that other family."
Still, O'Donnell is debuting her show at a perilous time. All the broadcast networks are launching their own new shows while popular cable series such as Sons of Anarchy, Dexter and The Walking Dead also returned.
For many experts, there's one thing that can really boost the fortunes of OWN: a new show (or more) focused completely on the channel's namesake.
"The real launch of OWN will happen when Oprah's on all the time," said Brad Adgate, a ratings analyst for Horizon Media in New York. "You hear these stories that (Winfrey) walks in, takes a meeting with advertisers, walks out, and they're begging 'Where do I sign?' But you can only do that for so long without results."
Broadcasting and Cable's Grossman was more blunt: "The viewers don't want Oprah's network, they want Oprah," he said. "She needs to roll up her sleeves and get herself back on the air."