Let there be OWN: Winfrey's network is here to light the path for all

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010

Granting an hour-long, prime-time interview to her friend Barbara Walters earlier this month, Oprah Winfrey spoke of self-sacrifice in such a way that the taping ought to have taken place in the garden of Gethsemane.

In preparing to wrap up 25 years of her daytime talk show, the epic cultural influence of which defies measurement, and starting the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), which will be filled with purpose-driven lifestyle programming and seen in some 80 million households, Winfrey told Walters she sees herself neither as billionaire nor celebrity. In the end, she is but a vessel of God:

"Use me," Winfrey said she asks the Lord. "Use me until you use me up."

She has a way of basking too often in the very miracle of herself - a poor Southern black child lifted to global prominence - and yet her real skill is how she invites you to bask in your own miraculousness. Everything is geared toward becoming, rejuvenating, and appropriately enough to the new year, resolving. Your personal sense of Oprahness, as well as your ability to be everything Oprah hopes you can be, is entirely up to . . . you.

This Oprah-as-earthen-vessel notion stuck with me as I dived into previews of some of the shows that will be seen on OWN when it launches at noon on New Year's Day.

While far from perfect, the network is suffused with a desire to ennoble, share, cleanse and elevate. Admiring what turned out to be a fairly nutritious array of new ideas in OWN's initial offerings, I found myself imagining the world a few centuries from now. There is only one prediction to make about the future (and I'm not the first to make it) and it is this: There will be Oprah churches all over the world. OWN is just one step in a process that will more fully (and valiantly, it turns out) spread the Oprah worldview.

I'm not sure how these churches will reconcile the many theological qualms that will arise - can Oprah align with the Trinity? etc. - but one thing Oprah church historians will have, barring any digital archive disaster, is the Christmastime story of the birth of OWN.

With new reality-based shows about clutter, sex, relationships, families, miracles, spiritual balance, healthy cooking and a daily dose of Oprah's BFF Gayle King's talk show, we shall see the fullest, epistolary template for what Oprah desired most for her devoted minions.

Watching OWN's shows, I noticed that they all in one way or another carry a classy Oprah-worthy imprimatur, in which value is placed on truth and learning.

Nowhere is that more evident than on "Oprah Presents Master Class," a cinema-quality, on-camera conversation that is edited into something like a monologue about the meaning of life. The first episodes of "Master Class" feature Jay-Z and Diane Sawyer; forthcoming episodes will feature more larger-than-life personalities: Simon Cowell, Maya Angelou, Lorne Michaels - a group of people who could be thought of as Almost as Big as Oprah.

The point here is to extract their wisdom and reassemble it in a way that is edifying and absorbing. It's not an interview with Oprah, per se, who only appears occasionally to provide narration or effuse. Instead, "Master Class" is more like Oprah's version of one of those too-slick biographical films of presidential candidates shown at election-year conventions.

The rest of OWN, for the time being, more resembles that endless supply of how-to shows and busy-mom shows and that-looks-delicious shows that cable viewers already spend so much time watching.

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