Now that Oprah Winfrey's OWN network is off and running, a number of new series continue to be rolled out on the schedule and another is added tonight when "Our America With Lisa Ling" premieres. In this weekly documentary series, Lisa Ling examines controversial topics like Internet brides, sex offenders, drugs, transgenders and the conflict between religion and homosexuality. One of Ling's goals, however, is to not just tell a story but also immerse herself - and the audience - in each world and show as many different sides as possible for the sake of broadening our own perceptions of the world in which we live. Ling recently talked with our Jim Halterman on the genesis of the name of the show, how she tries to stay objective no matter what the subject matter and why she believes she couldn't do "Our America" anywhere else but the OWN network.
Jim Halterman: I couldn't help but think that the title of your show is so appropriate because the people you are talking with on each episode are people who could be living next door to any one of us.
Lisa Ling: It's interesting because initially the show was called 'Inside With Lisa Ling' and it was after I shot the sex offender episode that I realized this show needs to be called 'Our America.' We need to take ownership of all that being an American entails; the good, the bad, the ugly. We like to paint this picture of patriotic America but the reality is that being an American is so much more complex than we often choose to admit. These over 700,000 registered sex offenders are just as American as you and I and if we continue to look at them and sort of put up a periphery we'll never be able to understand why they do what they do or how to deal with these problems and issues.
JH: How much time do you spend with the people you're interviewing before their walls start coming down?
LL: That's the difference between what we're doing with this series and typical news reporting. With news reporting you go in, you shoot your story and you're done. So many of these people we profile I'm still in touch with because they risk so much to come out and share parts of their life with us because they may never show it to anyone else. There's a huge responsibility attached to that. A lot of those people... I consider them friends now because they shared with me things that they may have never shared with their own families.
JH: When you go into a story is your objective to show the many sides of the subject or is it more about just filming and see where the story takes you?
LL: My approach to every one of the shows, whether it's about communities damaged by heroin or sex offenders or those people who are transgender, is to give people a sense of what their lives are like so you can make a better informed judgment or decision or even feeling about these people. Too often we go through life just harboring pre-conceived ideas based on what we've heard and I hope through this series people will get to know these people and develop a sense of compassion for them.
JH: At the TCAs last month, you said you were more proud of this series than anything else you'd done in the past. Was that expected?
LL: I think because OWN and Oprah so support me in the field and my editorial sense and my body of work, I have more creative freedom than I've ever had. These shows in every way are so beautiful, so beautifully shot, so beautifully told and ultimately they all send this message of compassion and just trying to understand things better and I've never really been able to do that kind of work. I've loved the National Geographic shows that I've done but a lot of them have a much harder TV edge. These are shows that make you think and provoke you and allow you to feel. My shows at National Geographic were 'World's Most Dangerous Gang,' 'World's Most Dangerous Drug,' 'Marijuana Nation.' These were great shows but just a really different feel from these shows.
JH: So it safe to say that OWN is the only place you could do 'Our America?'
LL: I've been trying to pitch these kinds of stories this kind of way my whole career. It's only because Oprah and OWN really trust me that I've been able to do it. I don't know if these shows are going to rate. If we're up against 'Jersey Shore' or 'Keeping Up With the Kardashians' or 'The Real Housewives'... I don't know if the appetite will be there but I will say that these shows are incredibly powerful, incredibly shocking and entertaining but they're also, I think, meaningful at the same time; there's take away value. I feel so good about them. If people will just turn it on it's hard to turn it off.
JH: Even though I'm guessing there is a lot of research done before you start shooting, are you still surprised at what you find once you're in the world?
LL: Always! The faith healer show... let's just say that I went into that just prepared to be very critical because I can't stand when people are manipulated particularly by religious leaders. What happens during that episode so shocked me and changed my perception of the notion of faith. That's what I love. That happens in every story. I would go into it thinking a certain thing and I always come away from it enlightened. That's what I hope the viewer experiences as well because I'm just the person who gets to physically interact with these people but the audience, my hope is, will be able to experience these worlds through me.
JH: It sounds like you became very connected to a lot of your subjects. Will we get follow-ups either online or in future episodes since the audience will probably get just as connected?
LL: We have shot some great stuff that didn't make air so there will be a very comprehensive library of updates. For example, you haven't seen the online brides piece yet but something unexpected happens at the end of that and we've continued to follow. We will definitely be updating and that's what's great about the web is that we can continuously check up on people and update it right away.
JH: You're a celebrity in your own right from your years on television. Does that ever get in the way or does it actually help people feel as though they already know you?
LL: I think initially it makes people a little uneasy but I consider myself to be the least celebrity-like person and I think while people may initially feel apprehensive because they may be familiar with my name or my work they very quickly learn that I'm just like them and I'm just a really low-key person. I consider myself to be a pretty normal person.
JH: What you were doing on 'The View' is so different than what you're doing now. What did you learn on that show?
LL: I loved doing it but I was 26-years old and I knew that if I didn't get out on the road while I was young I might not get a chance to do so. 'The View' is a daytime talk show that required me to be in a studio five days a week and I hadn't gotten the travel thing out of me. Have I ruled out a studio job in the future? No. But at the time it was absolutely the right decision to get back into the world.
JH: Is being a television journalist what you always saw yourself doing?
LL: As a kid I just wanted to be on TV because I grew up without a lot of money and I thought if I can get on TV I can have a better life but it wasn't until I started traveling and immersing myself in the world that that desire went from just being on TV to wanting to tell stories. When I started working in Afghanistan and different parts of Asia and the Middle East I was still kind of shocked by all the things that I was seeing that it compelled me to want to communicate stories.
"Our America With Lisa Ling" premieres tonight at 10:00/9:00c on OWN.