As the countdown to its January 1, 2011 (or 1/1/11) launch gets closer, The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) has announced its premiere weekend line-up as well as its regular primetime and daytime line-up for its first month on-air.
‘I think it’s important for us to make sure we hit some big themes that I think our audience will want to see from OWN in our first couple of weeks,’ says Christina Norman, chief executive officer for OWN.
The Discovery Communications/Harpo Inc. joint venture is due to launch in approximately 80 million homes in the U.S. via what is currently the Discovery Health Channel. Among the original series and specials featured in the launch line-up are Oprah Presents Master Class, which Winfrey calls ‘a truly one-of-a-kind look at the world’s most remarkable people;’ Season 25: Oprah Behind The Scenes and Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search For The Next TV Star, produced by Mark Burnett and hosted by Nancy O’Dell and Carson Kressley. Norman says the placement of these series in the launch sched will provide audiences not only with some quality Oprah time, as she appears in all of the above shows in varying capacities, but also with a sense of how the range of programming will mirror her intentions for the network.
The Behind the Scenes program, coproduced by Harpo Studios and True Entertainment, will air on Fridays from 8-9p.m. Taking viewers behind the curtain of the filming of the 25th and final season of Oprah’s syndicated talk show, Norman says the docuseries will give viewers a glimpse of ‘Oprah in a way they’ve never seen her before.’
Also set for primetime on Fridays, Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star takes the 9-10p.m. slot. The series features 10 finalists who will compete against each other to get their own program on the net.
‘We didn’t know what to expect,’ says Norman regarding the response to the call for entries, made on the last live Oprah show of the season. ‘We sat back and wondered what was going to happen, and then it happened, all right.’ By the time auditions closed in late June, over 15,000 people had auditioned – more than 9,500 online videos were submitted and more than 6,100 people attended open casting calls in New Jersey, Texas, California and Georgia.
‘The really fun part of the show is not only do each of these contestants get to go through the paces and compete for this opportunity, they’re being mentored along the way by some of the best people on television,’ says Norman, citing Dr. Phil and Winfrey.
Masterclass, produced by Harpo Studios and @radical.media, will feature what the network calls ‘some of the most intriguing people of our time,’ handpicked by Winfrey and telling their stories. Currently scheduled in the Sunday night 10-11p.m. slot, the first episode, airing on launch day, will feature hip-hop icon Jay-Z.
‘The ability for [someone like] Jay-Z to be able to tell his own story, framed through his life lessons, is what makes the show what it is,’ says Norman. As for Winfrey’s involvement in the show, ‘She sets up each episode and appears throughout it but doesn’t actually conduct the interview as much as guide the viewer through the stories,’ Norman explains.
Also figuring in the launch schedule is a series of four two-hour specials dubbed Ask Oprah’s All-Stars, featuring Suze Orman, Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, slated for Sunday’s 8-10p.m. slot. Our America with Lisa Ling sees the former Current TV reporter examining American subcultures, beginning January 30. Other series included in the launch schedule include Cristina’s Big Bowl of Love, a new cooking series with former talk show host Cristina Ferrare; Enough Already with Peter Walsh; The Gayle King Show featuring O Magazine editor-at-large King; In The Bedroom With Dr. Laura Berman featuring the sex therapist and best-selling author, and fact ent series Kidnapped By The Kids and Miracle Detectives.
Other big names making their way to the network such as Shania Twain (via the docuseries Why Not? With Shania Twain), Rosie O’Donnell (getting her own talk show on the net) and Sarah Ferguson (Finding Sarah) will be scheduled for later in the year, with Norman saying the Twain show should bow in the spring and the Ferguson series ‘at the end of first quarter [or] beginning of second quarter.’ The net has also announced two new docuseries for its slate; one featuring country music mother-daughter duo The Judds and the other following estranged father-daughter actors Ryan and Tatum O’Neal.
The Doc Club, eagerly anticipated by members of the documentary film community and officially announced at the beginning of this year, hasn’t yet made an appearance on the launch schedule. ‘We have not announced our first doc club movie on air but we’ll be doing that shortly,’ says Norman. Documentaries acquired for the net thus far via its partnership with distributor ro*co films international (see realscreen January/February 2010) include Life 2.0, Precious Life and Sons of Perdition.
Also due to make their way to the network post-launch will be a series of documentaries coproduced with assorted celebrities. ‘OWN Originals’ includes projects produced with Julia Roberts (Extraordinary Moms), Forest Whitaker (One Last Shot), Goldie Hawn (Searching for Happiness), Gabriel Byrne (Tent City) and Mariel Hemingway (Seven Suicides).
Norman says the launch schedule, combined with the roster of series, specials and docs slated to appear later in the year, adheres to her earlier proclamation that OWN programming should contain ‘no spinach.’
‘It’s one thing to tell me how to do something and it’s another thing to show me,’ she says. ‘That’s what we’re striving for, for people to see themselves in our programming and be able to connect with the issues being presented, the people they’re meeting and the stories they’re being told on an emotional level.’
Beyond her involvements with other series and her duties as chairman of OWN, Winfrey herself is slated to host a new series that will debut in the ‘back half, or the end of 2011,’ says Norman. Oprah’s Next Chapter will take Winfrey out of the studio and off to exotic locales around the world, where she will interview more captivating personalities. It’s all part and parcel of the 70 hours of annual OWN programming that will feature Winfrey in some capacity.
‘Contractually that’s what she’ll do but we’ve got her in so many other ways on the network so I don’t expect that it would be limited to that,’ says Norman. ‘That’s the great thing about having your own channel – you can go on whenever you want to.’
From an international perspective, Norman says the network will be announcing some international distrib deals shortly, and Canada’s Corus Entertainment will be adding OWN to its specialty channel portfolio sometime after the U.S. launch. But as the days tick by towards OWN’s launch date, Norman knows that many, many eyes will be following Oprah’s new venture, and not just from among her rabid fanbase.
‘It’s important for us to launch well and for us to launch with programming that we’re proud of, which we are,’ she summarizes. ‘But it’s also important for us to know that this is the beginning, not the end.’