Oprah Welcomes Rosie to OWN

Since she stepped down from her daytime show with some hoopla last month, Oprah Winfrey hasn’t exactly been relaxing.

“I get emails from friends regularly saying, ‘I hope that you’re somewhere relaxing, enjoying your time off from the show. I hope that you’re enjoying your time in the Mediterranean or whenever,’” Winfrey said Thursday, surprising writers by showing up at the TV Critics Press Association. “And I’m not.”

Instead, she says, “ I’m here in the office at OWN listening to budget meetings and marketing meetings and talking about how to strategize and make this network everything that we know it can be to fulfill the potential of the vision.”

OWN is the Oprah Winfrey Network that’s been up and running since the first of the year but has been struggling for an audience and even a tone, relying on a lot of reality and documentary titles and behind the scenes shots of her “Oprah” show.

Things may finally kick into gear, though, with the addition of the Rosie O’Donnell Show, a prime time talk show to emanate from the former Oprah studio in Chicago.

While Winfrey will repurpose content from her 4,561 episodes of her daily show into something called “OWN Your Life: The Oprah Class.” Her intention is to “use them as a teaching tool, repackaged and rehosted by myself in ways that we can teach people how to live their best lives, teach them about their potential, about forgiveness, about raising children, about divorce, about their relationships, and really, I think, magnify the potential and deepen the potential of that library.”

It will run at 8 p.m. nightly this fall, but will be preceded by “Rosie,” which, judging from her lively session before reporters, capped by applause, may be the spark to make OWN finally work.

At the time, broadcast networks were pursuing her to return to daytime to fill the spot that would be left by Oprah’s departure after 25 years.

But there were drawbacks to that, O’Donnell says. “It was right at the time when NBC had thrown Conan under the bus, so my desire to attach to a major corporation that had just taken 15 years of service and treated it as if it was nothing was also a huge factor in me not signing [with them].”

Signing with OWN was something she wanted to do from the beginning, she says, and Winfrey’s support is “a huge, huge, stamp of approval that’s beyond sort of anyone’s dream.

“It feels almost like being knighted, in a way, for her to go, ‘Hey, I want you to come do this for me,’” she says.

The new Rosie O’Donnell show will be different than her old one, she says, because she herself is different.

“When I was 33, I think the appeal of my program was there was an authentic, genuine appreciation of pop culture. I loved these people, like Streisand and Tom Cruise, the concept that I could meet them was really beyond my belief,” O’Donnell says. “And now I’m 50, and both of those people have stayed in my house, right? So the enthusiasm that I had for celebrities is changed. I have evolved and grown, and the show is going to be reflective of that.”

What else? “It’s not going to be your average show where three celebrities come on promoting something and you’ll see them on Letterman and Regis and all those other shows. It’s gonna be one celebrity per show, and they’re going to have something to talk about and want to come and play and have a fun kind of 60 minutes together, and there will be an upfront part, like your standard late night fare where I’ll do my kind of comedy. I’m not a monologist.

We’ll have some audience segments, and we’re gonna end with a fun, refillable different game every time, because you know my goal in life was to host “The Price is Right.”

Current events won’t necessarily be part of every day’s show, as it was when she was on “The View.” But, she adds, it things might pop up.

“If we were on in the last few months, I’m sure that we would have had someone talking with me one day, perhaps, about the fascination with the Casey Anthony trial, because as a child advocate my whole life and career, I don’t really understand why the media and the nation focused on this one child when there are many children killed and tortured every day.

Rather than daily outrage about details of the trial, she says, “I would like to approach that from a sociological or an anthropological point of view as to why we, as a culture, consume media in the way we do.”

Overall, she says, “it’s gonna be changeable, not as rigid as, let’s say a ‘Tonight Show’ or a ‘Letterman.’ It’s going to be a little bit more free flowing so that you can actually call it a talk/variety/reality show — a hybrid of a hybrid.”

And though her earlier show may have pioneered the concept of distributing products to audience members, she says she’ll shy away from the most brazen product placement this time.

“With Tickle Me Elmo,” she says, “it was so original and it was so unique, and nobody was really doing it, that nobody thought cash in on it, but in year five and six, Warner Bros. would say, ‘Do you think you could eat a Lean Cuisine during the show and then say how much you like it?’ I was like, ‘No. Why?’ ‘Well, we could get some money from them.’ I’m like, but then it would ruin the truth of when I announce how much I do like the Stouffer’s Pizza with the French bread crust. They’re not going to believe me.”

“What I’ve said to the staff now at OWN,” she says, “is here are the products that I really believe in and actually like, and we are hoping to partner with those. Like not for nothing, and they really get too much free stuff from me, but here it is: The Schick Intuition Razor is the best thing that’s happened to women since the Tampax multipack.”

Likewise, if there are surprise makeovers, they won’t be the corporate operations they have since become in TV, O’Donnell says.

“When my show began and we redid people’s homes because they had foster kids or because it was really about the people. Now when you see ‘Extreme Home Makeover,’ they’re all wearing Sears logos and they’re building a McMansion in the middle of Watts, and they’re knocking on the neighbors’ doors who come out in curlers smoking, and they’re like, ‘Hi. We’re white, and we’re here from Sears to give you a new mattress because your thing flooded.’ It’s so not germane to actually what’s happening. It’s the gross excess of consumerism that’s happened in America. And we’re going to bring it back a little bit, so you are going to get a little gift if you come to my show, but it’s not going to be something huge.”

O’Donnell succeeded at press tour not only in her snappy patter but in avoiding the two questions her publicist wanted her to have avoided: Donald Trump and Barbara Walters, to mention two tired fueds of the past.

And she also impressed her new boss.

“I was so excited because, as we all know, and as she knew, she could have gone to any of the big broadcasters, but she chose to align herself, her talent, her big creative vision with me and with OWN,” Winfrey says, and turning to her new talent, adds, “I could not be prouder to have you as a part of this family.”

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