Will Oprah’s OWN gamble pay off?

Everyone is getting a new start for 2011 and Oprah is chief among them. Over the first weekend of the New Year, the undisputed king and queen of talk, upgraded to her very own network, OWN — the Oprah Winfrey Network.

It’s been reported that Oprah first envisioned her own network in 1992. In the hoopla surrounding OWN, it’s been conveniently forgotten that the television icon has been down a similar road before, co-founding Oxygen, which launched in 2000 and was sold to NBC in 2007. The very next year, she announced her joint venture with Discovery, where she would take over Discovery Health with OWN.

Prior experience, however, has not prevented some growing pains. In August 2010, television trade Broadcasting & Cable reported that OWN was originally set to launch in 2009 and that the price for the undertaking had risen from $100 million to $189 million. Still OWN’s Saturday debut felt akin to company arriving promptly for a dinner that was not quite done but, nevertheless, noon eastern on Saturday, January 1, Oprah introduced OWN.

Launching with Oprah’s Guide to OWN: The New Oprah Winfrey Network, ‘’Happy new year everybody and welcome to OWN,’’ Oprah beamed. ‘’This is a very exciting day for me, kicking off the next chapter of my life with all of you. Yes, the Oprah Winfrey Network is finally on the air.’‘

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Essentially Oprah revealed programming that would start taking shape in the coming months. Some critics even noted that Oprah was sort of low-key for such a big moment, making OWN’s debut more like a soft opening than the grand affair of say Oprah sending her audience members to Australia or generously doling out cars. Unexpectedly, Kidnapped by the Kids, a reality show about children kidnapping their workaholic parents to foster a “family first” mentality, kicked things off. Interestingly, a show by the same name ran on Great Britain’s Channel 4 as early as December 2009.

That was followed by the more expected Oprah fare of Master Class, a show where celebrities such as Sidney Poitier, Diane Sawyer and Condoleezza Rice share their journey largely uninterrupted with no visible interviewer. Oprah shows up at different points to interject the lessons the audience should take away from these “masters.” Considering the criticism Oprah has dished out about hip-hop and the criticism she’s in turn received from rappers such as Ludacris and Ice Cube, selecting Jay-Z as her first subject was pretty bold but it doesn’t hurt that his book Decoded is a New York Times bestseller.

Because her talk show hasn’t ended, Oprah can’t do a show per se for OWN until closer to the end of 2011. So the behind-the-scenes look at the 25th and final season of her historic The Oprah Winfrey Show titled Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes is, as one critic noted, indeed genius. What better way to drive home the Oprah brand while inspiring others to dream big than showcasing Oprah, who was born poor in Jim Crow Mississippi, actively leading a staff of more than 400 for the last season of the most influential talk show in television history?

On the surface, OWN doesn’t come across as groundbreaking television. Take today’s afternoon schedule for example, which includes the classic film An Officer and A Gentleman, two cooking shows (Anna & Kristina’s Grocery Bag and Cristina Ferrare’s Big Bowl of Love) and The Best of Trading Spaces and OWN appears to be a little dash of Lifetime, a large heaping of Food Network and smidgeon of TLC at one destination. Later, in the evening, the formula continues with the Season 25 re-airing plus Mystery Diagnosis, a Dr. Phil re-run, the de-clutter show Enough Already! with Peter Walsh, an Oprah’s Guide to OWN re-run plus the sex show In the Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman. If you truly think about it, this hodge-podge of things is what has largely powered The Oprah Winfrey Show for so many years now.

But Oprah is trying new things too. On Friday, her American Idol-esque Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star premieres. Hopefuls who submitted their videos begged friends on Twitter and Facebook to vote for them in hopes of becoming Oprah’s next Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz or Rachel Ray for months. Needless to say there are many viewers and critics alike anticipating this one.

Most interesting, in the spring, OWN will launch its documentary film club featuring documentaries produced by celebrities such as Julia Roberts and Forest Whitaker. Whitaker’s documentary One Last Shot focuses on a hospice program where prisoners at Angola, a maximum security facility in Louisiana where most inmates stay until they die, care for the dying.

“In the Angola prison’s hospice, we meet inmates who decide to take an opportunity for redemption, reminding us of the connection that exists between each and every human being,” reads Whitaker’s statement on Oprah.com.

Not so appealing are reality shows starring country singer Shania Twain, father-and-daughter actors Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson and the country mother-and-daughter duo Naomi and Wynonna Judd. There’s also a show from Rosie O’Donnell, who was last prominently seen on The View, which she exited quite acrimoniously. OWN deals in transformation and not in self-destruction so Oprah has promised the trainwreck epidemic that has defined existing reality television will be absent from her network. That’s a feat considering the drama each subject has personally endured.

Unfortunately, the lack of diversity in the existing and upcoming OWN offerings does stand out. A black woman may be OWN’s founder/namesake and another black woman, Christina Norman, may run it but, so far, OWN is very much status quo television. That’s a far cry from the refreshing perspective of Oprah’s magazine O, which thrives on diversity. Yes, will.i.am created the theme song plus Oprah’s gal pal Gayle has a show and so does Oprah favorite Lisa Ling, but this is not enough.

One prominent African-American blogger lambasted Oprah for not trying a network targeting affluent African-Americans but that’s never been Oprah’s thing. Such a move would have been disingenuous and rejected quickly but more diversity wouldn’t hurt. Does Oprah not recall how she felt as a child when the host of the kids’ show Romper Room never called her name?

Hopefully this oversight will improve over time because Oprah’s cause is very noble. “What I want to do is build a channel that is a respite for your mind, an oasis of stimulation, that you come away from with little pieces of light,” she recently told Parade magazine.

With Oprah, it’s been her audacity to try that has perhaps inspired us the most. The Oprah empire wasn’t built overnight and we definitely shouldn’t expect OWN to be. No dream has been deferred when it comes to Oprah and that’s exactly how she’s earned her OWN venture and our awe.