Oprah Winfrey’s march toward global domination took a big step forward this week with the launch of the Oprah Winfrey Network, a 24-hour Oprah-themed channel that takes the place of the now-defunct Discovery Health Channel. Oprah’s long-running syndicated talk show isn’t part of the new network, but a behind-the-scenes documentary series about its final season is, and after that season wraps up in September, new prime-time series Oprah’s Next Chapter will join the OWN lineup.
In the meantime, OWN is filled with Oprah-approved lifestyle shows that are choked with the kind of benign narcissism that infests everything the queen endorses. Like Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz or Suze Orman, the stars of the various OWN shows are all carefully managed brands, prepackaged personalities who tout their abilities to change your life by organizing your living room or tracking down your lost relatives or showing you how to cook some awesome appetizers. No network features as much hugging and crying as OWN, almost all of it cynical and disingenuous. Stars like Dr. Laura Berman, host of In the Bedroom, parachute into people’s lives for an episode and pretend to solve deeply ingrained issues that have been festering for years. Even organizational expert Peter Walsh, host of Enough Already!, talks about “emotional clutter.”
The most frustrating aspect of OWN’s programming is that Oprah has this huge platform, a chance to champion great art or at least intriguing entertainment, as she sometimes does with her book club, and all she offers is pandering and self-righteousness. Former View panelist Lisa Ling hosts Our America, a stylish newsmagazine, but instead of telling stories that illuminate the title subject, she spends much of her time exploring her own feelings. The first episode, examining faith healers, is more about Ling’s faith than that of her ostensible subjects. Oprah herself appears briefly in the nauseatingly fawning celebrity-profile series Master Class, which could easily be retitled Look at My Famous Friends.
For the cult of Oprah, the people who look to her for advice on every aspect of their lives, OWN offers easy answers to every possible question. With an entire network at her disposal, all Oprah can do is keep telling her fans what she thinks they want to hear.