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Cyclist Lance Armstrong is interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in Austin, Tex., January 14, 2013. (George Burns/Reuters)
Cyclist Lance Armstrong is interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in Austin, Tex., January 14, 2013. (George Burns/Reuters)

John Doyle

From the TV Critics’ tour: Oprah’s shock and aw-shucks tactics Add to ...

Oprah didn’t make it. Lindsay Lohan didn’t make it. But both were here in spirit and on film, at the TV Critics Winter Press Tour.

When OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) launched with formidable fanfare in January of 2011, there were some skeptics lurking in the TV racket and the press. Could Oprah transfer her success with her daytime talk show and spinoffs into a full cable channel of content? For almost two years it seemed the skeptics were correct.

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OWN arrived to middling interest and little financial reward. A channel imbued with the Oprah ambiance but mostly lacking Winfrey herself seemed to have little appeal. Backed by the Discovery Channel proprietors to the tune of half-a-billion dollars, OWN looked like an unwise venture. After a year, the channel retrenched, laid off staff and some rethinking was done.

The rethink involved putting Oprah at the centre of the OWN universe and using Oprah’s reputation and interview skills to land exclusive interviews with the notorious. Plus some soft-centred family comedies, also involving the famous.

It worked. As Sheri Salata, co-president of OWN told critics here, the channel is now enjoying double-digit growth in viewers and subscribers. But gone are the days when Oprah and OWN boasted about “revolutionary” television, gone are the proclamations about female-centric news and documentary programs. What’s made OWN work is old-fashioned, ordinary TV tactics – celebrity coverage, sensational interviews and corny comedies. OWN is succeeding by using shock tactics and aw-shucks programming.

OWN began to look like a viable channel when it got strong ratings for Winfrey’s interviews with Whitney Houston’s daughter, Lance Armstrong and Lindsay Lohan. While some observers saw this turn of events as evidence that Winfrey provides the U.S.A. with its main confessional box, there was nothing so meaningful about it. It was celebrity-driven TV. Now that’s being taken up a notch to keep the ratings going strong. A spinoff from the Lohan interview was an agreement with Lohan to allow OWN to make a reality series about her attempted recovery program and endeavours to leave her partying, hell-raising lifestyle behind.

Most of the OWN presentation was footage from the series about Lohan, set to debut in March. It was, in truth, like a Kardashian show on acid. There was Lohan, either teary or angry, making one diva-declarative statement after another. “There’s nothing left in having a drink for me. There’s no party I haven’t gone to, nobody I haven’t hung out with, no situation I haven’t been exposed to,” she boasts to the camera. Asked about the paparazzi always on her heels, she cries, “I don’t want them following me to an AA meeting!” A voice is heard asking if she feels she’s a prisoner, and she sighs, “Yes! All the time.”

We see her in an angry meeting with her dad. We see her in a meeting with mom in which mom looks giddy with excitement and Lohan looks stricken. We watch as an assistant explains that everything has ground to a halt because Lohan has been locked out of her apartment for not paying her rent. What we see is a cringe-inducing meltdown.

And then, heavens above, we see Winfrey coming to the rescue. In the back of a limousine, Oprah has Lohan’s situation explained to her by one her assistants. An Oprah assistant, not a Lohan assistant. She frowns and says, “This is exactly what everybody said was going to happen and I believed differently. She doesn’t understand. This is her life and you think you have it forever.” Then Oprah confronts a teary Lohan, saying, “My truth is I really do want you to win, but if that isn’t what you want I’m okay with that. I will tell these guys to pack up and leave today.” And a stricken Lohan replies, “I know this is my last shot at doing what I have to do.”

The footage was beyond bizarre and seriously creepy. It reminded everyone of the worst of daytime-TV shenanigans, the sort of TV that Winfrey once managed to graciously transcend with her talk show. Now these cheesy antics are the bedrock of OWN’s seedling success. Train-wreck TV.

And then came the aw-shucks part of the OWN menu. The channel showed us a “docu-series,” Deion’s Family Playbook, documenting the complicated family life of former NFL and MLB athlete Deion Sanders, the only man to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series. He’s the patriarch of a brood that comes to a total of 11 kids. Heartwarming scenes ensue.

Sanders seems like a sincere, likeable guy with a strange need to put himself and his family on TV. A lot. He’s already done a reality show for another channel. He talked to us about the importance of education and declared he wasn’t trying to make his kids famous. The critics pretty much ignored all of this, and asked him about his Super Bowl predictions.

Meanwhile, the OWN executives beamed. As well they might. It works. For ratings, for a while. But, once upon a time, only three years ago, Oprah promised the world so much more for OWN.

Follow me on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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