Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thoughts on Oprah's next move

We asked Cecilia Konchar Farr (author and coeditor of two previous books on Oprah's Book Club) to share her thoughts on what's next for the queen of all media, Oprah Winfrey, now that she's leaving her daytime talk show behind in 2011. Read on to see what Cecilia had to say about that as well as Oprah's savvy trendsetting ways, watching shows online, and why we desperately need some exciting discussions of books on TV (something beyond the currently somber affairs broadcast on C-SPAN and PBS).

Oprah is leaving network television. So who isn’t? I grew up in the sixties a walking talking TV Guide for our three TV stations. My first crushes were Peter Tork, Manolito Montoya and John-Boy Walton, in that order; my after school hours were spent not with homework and hovering parents, but with hours of Dark Shadows and Star Trek re-runs. I patterned my early career on Linda Kelsey’s character from Lou Grant. And yet, I can’t remember the last time I tuned into prime-time programming or even the evening news. My nineteen-year-old daughter gets her TV shows on her computer, and my sixteen-year-old son uses his television exclusively for gaming. It isn’t even hooked up to our cable.

Chicken Little media commentators should take this moment to remember that Oprah is nothing if not a savvy first adopter of trends that American women faithfully follow. Not only did she all but invent the latest self-help craze, but she was an early presence on satellite radio, and her website continues to be one of the richest and most accessible on the internet. With that in mind, I’m willing to bet that Oprah’s recently announced retirement from her CBS program and her move to cable TV and her own network (“OWN”—Oprah Winfrey Network—ah, the irony for the woman who, literally, has everything) will mark not the end of her influence but the expansion of it.

In fact, as a book lover and admirer of Ms. Winfrey, I look forward to what’s ahead. Here’s why: Imagine what she can do with all of that programming, without the constraints of a traditional, ad-driven, one-hour talk show format. She might do for cable networks what she did for TV talk shows, contemporary novels and women’s magazines. Based on her track record, I predict she will raise the level of discourse by at least a couple of notches, while being respectfully attentive to the desires of the mostly middle-aged and middle-class women in her audience. When Oprah turns her energies toward cable, maybe fewer women on Oxygen will snap or dash incessantly to the top of the Empire State building because they believe in love. And why not? Most critics agree that Oprah single-handedly stopped the downward spiral of chair-hurling exhibitionism of eighties daytime talk shows. Who better to stop the Meg Ryan re-run insanity and give women the variety and depth they deserve from the television stations that cater to them?

I anticipate that OWN might herald a return to conversations about writing, to indulgent hours spent over food and novels, to the lively exchanges between readers and authors that characterized the first six years of Oprah’s Book Club. I want to hear that old Oprah toast, “Here’s to books!” On Oprah’s network, we could hear it every day. It will be no less valuable for being sandwiched between hours of Drs. Phil and Oz.

Even before Oprah’s Book Club, I had been wishing for a Reading Rainbow for grown-ups, a TV show that captures the joy so many of us find in reading. After visiting many book groups in my research over the past five years, I can’t stop asking why Book TV is so painfully boring. Shouldn’t TV about books be even more engaging than the Discovery, Food or History channels? I blush when I listen to critics, writers and scholars on C-SPAN, PBS and NPR. Why do we get so solemn when we talk about books, modulating our tones and reining in our enthusiasms? This is terrific stuff we’re dealing with. We should sound like Mythbusters Adam and Jamie at the scene of an explosion.

And who better to capture that level of excitement than Oprah? She’s done it before, if only once a month or so for six years. With OWN, she will have the space and time to do it again. And if she builds it, women will come—or is it that she builds where innovative women are already going, pursuing Jon Stewart or Tony Soprano? Either way, it’s OK to say so long to Oprah on CBS. The new OWN might very well launch my generation into the strange new TV world our children are already exploring. I just hope Oprah brings her Book Club along for the ride.