By Frank Barron
It’s been almost a year since OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network debuted on New Year’s Day with much fanfare. A joint venture between Harpo, Inc., and Discovery Communications, it is a multi-platform media company designed to entertain, inform and inspire people to live their best lives. OWN’s programming slate of original series reflects that commitment this fall. Every night Monday through Friday there’s Oprah’s Lifeclass, with life lessons and personal revelations from Oprah Winfrey herself, plus The Rosie Show, a new talkshow with Rosie O’Donnell. Other new primetime series include Don’t Tell the Bride, Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s and Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind, along with returning favorites Ask Oprah’s All Stars and Our America with Lisa Ling on weekends.
Our America with Lisa Ling is a fine documentary series that had the distinction to be the first OWN show to be renewed just two episodes into its run last season. With a small group of journalists we visited Lisa at the network’s Wilshire district headquarters back then, and recently returned to talk about her second season, premiering Oct. 16, airing Sundays at 10 p.m.
Ling will continue to explore various subjects that are hidden in the shadows in seemingly normal communities. “Amateur Porn,” “Modern Polygamy,” “Sex Trafficking,” “Invisible Wounds of War,” “Extreme Parenting,” “The Prison Cycle,” and “Twins and Identity” are the titles of her upcoming shows. Sometimes the titles don’t do justice to her thought-provoking subjects, so after a nice lunch I listened to Lisa passionately talk about each of her films.
“In this media landscape it is the greatest honor in my life and my career to be allowed to tell these kinds of substantive stories. There is a lot of responsibility attached to that, because the people we profile in our shows really do trust us. They share things with us that they haven’t shared with anyone,” Lisa explains noting that everyone is treated with respect and dignity. “We did not exploit them or sensationalize their stories.”
An inquisitive journalist, Lisa believes there is a desire to know what’s going on in the world and our own backyard. “We want to know about the lives of the people who may live next door, or in another place just like ours. So we take you into these worlds that you may never have thought about before.”
Lisa calls the show about polygamy very surprising, “because it’s the women who are insisting on the right.” And she says that the issue is really slavery for the episode about young girls in the U.S. who get trapped into prostitution. “It’s an issue that Americans need to start recognizing. Brave women and girls, who have gotten out of that life, came forward and talked to me because they hope to help other girls.”
Hope is a common thread that everyone has, even when faced with tremendous challenges. Lisa explains, “You’ve heard stories about Vets with PTSD, but I don’t think you will ever see a better show about the invisible wounds of war. And it was so accidental, because we were allowed into Peter’s world, and he never even told his wife about what he experienced. And we followed him to this wellness retreat, and what we experienced there was incredibly powerful. We saw this guy get his spirit back, and it gives you hope for all the other veterans who are coming back with PTSD.”
Impressed by the diversity of subjects, and stories told with such understanding and not the “train wreck TV” mentality, I asked Lisa how she chooses her episodes. She says, “Every one of these shows is an entirely different world. It is a collaborative effort. I’m someone who reads everything. I’m intrinsically fascinated by so many things, so I’m constantly pitching ideas, and OWN ultimately green lights the shows.”
OWN really took a risk doing the show that’s an anthropological look at different subcultures in America, according to Lisa. That doesn’t sound like a big ratings getter, but the show has done well and people are responding to it.
Sheri Salata, OWN’s president, stopped by our little press session to express her support for Lisa. “Thanks for coming. We’re very proud of this show. This is the stuff we want to do, break new ground, and elevate the conversation. You know there are all different colors in a rainbow. This is really about being human and recognizing and becoming more informed. Your heart is touched, and you can understand what is going on in communities. That’s what we tried to do on the Oprah Show, and this is one of the things Oprah is most proud of— what Lisa is doing.” If Oprah’s proud of it, it’s worth a look.