Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

How Oprah Winfrey’s TV network can finally come into its OWN. The media mogul’s year-old TV network scored a ratings bump on New Year’s Day with the debut of her new interview show Oprah’s Next Chapter. But, overall, OWN (a joint venture of Oprah’s Harpo Productions and Discovery Communications) continues to struggle.

Executives at OWN are reportedly considering shifting their programming focus toward African-Americans in an effort to find a successful niche. That’s smacks a bit of defeatism. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with reaching out to an African-American audience but  Oprah’s brand is actually broader than that.

Since no one asked me, here are five steps that I believe OWN can take to grow its audience in the year (and years) ahead.

1. Define the brand and program to it. As noted here yesterday, Oprah’s brand is one that celebrates spiritual growth, self improvement and the virtues of hope, forgiveness, compassion and gratitude. It carries a refreshing message that naturally appeals to mass audiences — especially in troubled times.

That’s why the network should review its roster and only keep those programs (and stars) that fit the brand. After a quick review of OWN’s schedule, I would suggest that Oprah’s own show, of course, would make the cut. So would shows like America’s Money Class (featuring financial-planning advice from Suze Orman), Extreme Clutter with Peter Walsh (teaching people how to de-clutter their lives), Our America with Lisa Ling (profiling real people across the country), Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind (profiling the likes of Tyler Perry and others)  and Super Soul Sunday (featuring conversations with authors, thinkers and spiritual leaders). Strong documentaries like the excellent Serving Life (produced for OWN by Odyssey Networks) also fit the profile and the network would be wise to order up more of them.

The network should avoid any reality programming with concepts that smack of exploitation or voyeuristic celebrity cheesiness. In that category I’d include last year’s Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals that purported to chronicle the reconciliation between the father-daughter acting duo.  I think such reconciliations are wonderful but they should be accomplished in private and not subjected to prying eyes or Nielsen ratings.

Also,  declining ratings for Rosie O’Donnell’s OWN talk show suggest that a change might be due  in that time slot.

2. Develop new talk and reality programming around positive personalities. Possibilities include Mitch Albom, the inspirational author/screenwriter/philanthropist whose books Tuesday’s with Morry and For One More Day  Harpo Productions turned into successful TV movies.

Also, positive evangelist/author Joel Osteen. In fact, Pack Your Bags, a reality concept involving the Lakewood Church pastor is being developed by Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Voice) that follows ordinary people embarking on efforts to help others. OWN would be a natural home for the concept.

And, if I might suggest, Beliefnet would also be a good partner in developing such projects.  Therese Borchard  (Beyond Blue), for example, inspiringly tackles the subject of depression with both wisdom and humor.

3. Develop positive interstitials as a network signature. During commercial breaks, the network could reinforce it’s positive messaging with short pieces in which people (famous or not) offer tiny doses or wisdom that they apply to their own lives.  Perhaps, OWN could work with Odyssey Networks to produce shorter/TV-friendly versions of Odyssey’s Call on Faith videos which are currently available on mobile devices.  Here’s one featuring the aforementioned Mitch Albom:

4. Acquire inspirational films, miniseries and TV series. Harpo Productions has a library of its own such product going all the way back to 1989’s The Women of of Brewster Place.  But they could turn to other suppliers as well. OWN would, for example, be a great place for the TV premiere of the recent Emilio Estevez spiritual drama The Way (starring Martin Sheen). Other titles that would fit the brand include My Big Fat Greek Wedding and, a personal favorite of mine, Joe Versus the Volcano. And, how about making OWN the place for audiences to rediscover epic miniseries like Roots, Holocaust, Backstairs at the White House? As for TV series, Touched by and Angel and NYPD Blue are two excellent examples of two quite different series that, in their own way, promote concepts of understanding and compassion. Another suggestion would be That’s Life (an excellent family drama that ran for two years on CBS about a decade ago).

5. Develop scripted programming. Finally, when enough wind (and ad revenue) is at the network’s sails, it can move on toward developing original films, miniseries and TV series of its own.  They can be developed via Harpo and other like-minded partners (i.e. Odyssey Networks).  There are also several faith-based/inspirational pilots currently in the early stages of development at other networks. If I were managing OWN, I’d be on the lookout for some good ones — and then wait for the their respective networks to drop the ball on them.  Possibilities there include:

Stronger (ABC): From author Rob Bell (Love Wins) and Carlton Cuse (Lost), it’s about the spiritual journey of a musician and teacher.

The Untitled Martha Williamson Project (Lifetime): From the producer of Touched by an Angel comes a drama about a hospital chaplain.

The Untitled Mitch Albom Project (TNT): An Albom-created drama about a Detroit radio station manager trying to breathe life into his struggling city.

So, there you go.  I’ve saved a network. Now it’s time for lunch.

No blog Thursday or Friday. See you Monday!

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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