This may be the most harrowing assignment I have ever tackled for NPR: spending a day watching Oprah Winfrey's new cable channel. Winfrey has admitted she could have done a better job with OWN, which launched in January. Ratings have been disappointing and the original CEO has left. Now that her daily talk show is over, Winfrey says that she's going to focus her attention on making OWN more successful. I figured I could check it out to see how it's doing.
I consider myself a confident guy, but it's a little scary to enter a world where my concerns are among the least considered in the universe. OWN is aimed directly at women. It's a world of swimsuit dos and don'ts, lunch with the girls and makeovers.
At 8 a.m., fresh from catching up with the Casey Anthony trial on network TV – don't judge! – I turned on OWN expecting to plunge into living my best life. Instead, I got an old Dr. Phil episode, then a rerun of What Not to Wear. Turns out, the Queen of All Media's channel doesn't really get started with new content until 10 a.m. – strike one in this game.
When 10 rolls around, we get Oprah's best friend Gayle King and her live talk show. She's always been the next best thing to Oprah, and her show is simulcast on Sirius XM satellite radio. But in trying to straddle two mediums, King masters neither; she's too laid back for morning television and too visual for radio.
And King's gushing interview with celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito made this male intruder feel even more uncomfortable. "How may things do men do that are maternal and generous and are meant to take care of other people?" DiSpirito intoned as King murmured in agreement. "Very few things. But when you cook for someone you are being sensitive. You are doing it because you want to do what moms do."
No, Rocco. Guys cook because they want to eat.
Here's where I realized some of the channel's most compelling daytime programming was the commercials for its big showcase series, such as Finding Sarah. That one features former Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson striving to recover from divorce and worldwide personal scandal.
"We appear to be not broken, but we are broken," she almost whispers over the sad piano music in the promo.
To a guy, sounds like a bad Dateline NBC episode. But I got a certain catty thrill watching a woman who was the Kate Middleton of her day suffer through scream therapy with a Native American shaman and counseling sessions with Dr. Phil.
My own favorite OWN show is Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes. This is where cameras go backstage during Winfrey's final season on broadcast TV, exposing the host's boundless ego and relentless perfectionism.
I loved being able to listen in on a conversation – okay, a teeny bit of an argument – between Winfrey and King about what they'll wear in their final appearance together. They spend a long time debating the appropriateness of jeans, and then they disagree about how much their clothes should match.
After my day soaking up the OWN spirit, this much is clear: the channel needs more Oprah and more distinctive programming. But even handicapped by my Y chromosome, I see how OWN can work by sticking to Winfrey's celebrity-gilded, self-empowerment brand.
Wonder when that channel will start?
Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.