When you're Oprah Winfrey, you don't do anything on a small scale. As her long-running daytime talk show heads towards its final episode in September 2011, Winfrey is already deep into her next venture, which is not a new show but a new television network. The Oprah Winfrey Network - or OWN, as it's known - commences January 1st with a large slate of programming that, according to the network's press release, is "designed to entertain, inform and inspire people to live their best lives." With plans to include a mix of original programs, strips, specials, documentaries and acquired movies, the OWN network will also include series from the Discovery Health channel since that is the space that OWN is moving into with this ambitious co-venture between Harpo, Inc. and Discovery Communications.
To get an idea what viewers will see on January 1st, how programming is skewed to include both women and men as well as some specific ventures such as the return of Rosie O'Donnell to the talk show circuit, our Jim Halterman chatted last week with Lisa Erspamer, the Chief Creative Officer for the OWN network.
Jim Halterman: When the network launches, there will be a slew of programming vying for the attention of viewers. How do you keep those viewers from being overwhelmed with so much to choose from right off the bat?
Lisa Erspamer: It's hard to foreshadow how that will work. I think we have to sort of put it out there and see what the reaction and the response is and make decisions based on that. We're keeping the basic shows from Discovery Health and bringing them over but we are launching a whole new idea so that is probably why we ended up with what we have. We wanted it to feel like Oprah's network and so we wanted to give you a sampling of what we're doing and what we want to continue to do. It felt like you don't want to have to little and you don't want to have too much so it's a very delicate dance. We'll see when we come out how it's received and we'll make decisions based on that. There's no real great science to it that I've been able to uncover. We're just really trying to build it and create it and hope that people like it. That's really all we can do.
JH: How important was it to have a lot of familiar faces for viewers to connect with? Was that a big part of the game plan from the start?
LE: I think that it's important. For the people we've had on 'The Oprah Show' over the years it felt like a natural extension for them to come to the network and do stuff with us here. I don't think it was the original plan. I think that, again, everything is based on instinct and when we talked about 'Enough Already!' it seemed like a natural fit for us to create a show with Peter Walsh. He's done very well on 'The Oprah Show' and I sort of look at it as if we're bringing some of the people that you know from the Oprah show and bringing them out to you in a bigger way. We have 'In The Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman' and we'll have to see if that resonates with our audience like it does when she appears on 'Oprah.' There are familiar faces and we also have new faces for the network.
JH: When you were planning the programming, how did you consider the female and the male audience? On the surface, you think of Oprah as more associated with a female audience but men do watch her, too.
LE: It is primarily female but we never create shows with the intention of excluding men and we actually create shows that bring in men. I think that there is definitely programming that will speak to men if they sample us. For instance, I think 'Ask Oprah's All Stars' is a great opportunity for co-viewing because Dr. Phil [McGraw], Suzie [Orman] and [Dr. Mehmet] Oz all have fairly strong male audiences. They have men that come into each one of their shows so I think that's a great opportunity for male viewers to get drawn into the network. And then there are things like 'Master Class' because I think that will resonate with our male viewers, We have Jay-Z, Simon Cowell, Lorne Michaels and then some of the women like Diane Sawyer. I think that's a great series for co-viewing because who isn't interested in people who have achieved great levels of success and great integrity to figure out their life lessons? It is really beautifully done. It's really artistic and it's a really powerful series.
JH: 'Your OWN show: Oprah's Search for the Next TV Star' sounds like a great way to interact directly with the audience. How did that show come together?
LE: A lot of people pitched that idea to us so we were brainstorming one day internally and somebody brought it up again and we said 'We should do it!' We put the word out for people to upload their videos online and we got 15,000 people, which is amazing. They didn't just send in an email, they had to literally shoot video of themselves and upload it. We got 15,000 for that and then we did casting calls in four cities - wide ones - but clearly a lot of people wanted that opportunity. As you know, Oprah loves to make dreams come true and so that just felt like a win-win. The series turned out great. I think we have a unique and amazing cast and it was really fun to watch the process of it. Suzie Orman is a part of it and she and Dr. Phil [are] guest mentors along with Arsenio Hall, Gayle King, Vera Wang and Daisy Fuentes. And then Carson Kressley hosts with Nancy O'Dell and Mark Burnett produces it.
JH: How did getting Rosie O'Donnell back on television in Fall 2011 come together?
LE: I think Rosie is one of those great talents that are very rare. Rosie, in daytime, did huge numbers and was a big star and when we heard word that she was possibly interested in coming back we had a great meeting with her and fell back in love with her. We were already in love with her but when you meet her in person you really see her. You want to lean in and hear every word that she says. She's funny, she's smart, she's opinionated, she's a mom... she's been such a great partner for us and she's really excited about the network. We're honored to be a part of her next chapter.
JH: You're doing the behind the scenes show of the final season of 'The Oprah Show' but will you be packaging any of the old Oprah shows for the entire run?
LE: Yes. Who doesn't want to go down that road? I loved it when we were there producing highlight shows and looking back and finding out where people are now. We'll be doing all that kind of stuff with the entire library. We'll be seeing 'The Best of Oprah' for eternity. It's 25 years of content! So many amazing things and so many great follow-ups to that.
JH: So when people tune into OWN on January 1st, what will they see?
LE: The first thing we'll see is Oprah. The network officially kicks off at noon. Oprah has what we're calling a guide show which is really a sort of sampler platter of the different shows with trailers and sizzle reels from all the different shows that will be seen in the first couple of weeks and some that you won't be seeing for a little while. Then we are sneak-peeking a bunch of our programming so people can get a little flavor of what's to come. So, everything from 'Kidnapped By The Kids,' which I highly recommend seeing, 'Enough Already! With Peter Walsh,' 'Master Class' [and] premiering that night will be 'Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes.' We'll have two back-to-back episodes that night. On Sunday, we premiere Diane Sawyer's 'Master Class' and then following that will be 'Ask Oprah's All Stars' and that's the special two-hour event with Phil, Suzie and Oz. Gayle's show, 'The Gayle King Show' will premiere on January 10th.
JH: What's the format of Gayle's show?
LE: It's a totally different format. We're basically taking her radio show and putting it on television. Gayle is such a great talent and she's so funny and so engaged in the world. I call her a walking People magazine because she's just into everything from celebrity to what the best cupcake is that you can find in America to politics. She's interested in everything so I think that her show has the possibility of being a great success. I hope people find it because I think when you find it you'll get lost in it. She's so funny. Gayle will call anybody. I have a booker background - it was my passion - and Gayle makes me look like a wimp.
JH: Right now, it looks like a lot of non-scripted programming. Any interest in going into the scripted world down the line?
LE: I would say anything is possible. Right now, we're not there but let's go down that road down the road but I think it's an absolute possibility. How great and how fun to be able to do anything! For me, I hope we do because I think that would be a great thing to do.
To find out where OWN is on your cable system, go to http://www.oprah.com/own.