By LYNN ELBER
LOS ANGELES — Oprah Winfrey wants to better the world in her own way, and that absolutely, positively excludes a political career.
The media powerhouse who threw her clout behind Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy says she will never seek office. As she fervently asserts: “Arrgghhh! The very idea of politics. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.”
But a new, basic cable channel that bears her name and debuts at noon EST Saturday to 85 million homes across the land? That’s a challenge she relishes as her syndicated talk show nears its conclusion after a singularly influential run of 25 years.
Politics is “having to live your life at the whim of somebody’s polls,” Winfrey said in an interview from her home near Santa Barbara. “I just feel like there’s so much more ability for me, personally, to be able to effect change and to be able to influence through stories and ideas than I could ever do with politics.”
She hopes to see the Oprah Winfrey Network – OWN – establish itself as a “force for good,” a platform that helps people “see the best of themselves” on a broader canvas than her daily Chicago-based talk show.
With the Los Angeles-based OWN, as well as orchestrating a big finish in May for “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” the talk show host said it’s unlikely she’ll have time for the Chicago mayoral bid of Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff. She and Emanuel haven’t seen each other in town.
“It seems that everybody else in the world has run into Rahm except me,” said Winfrey. She offered that she signed a petition to get his name on the February ballot when she was approached outside a Chicago gym.
As for Obama, Winfrey remains a steadfast booster.
“He’s doing a great job, and I don’t use the term ‘great’ loosely,” she said. “The amount of pressure and opinions coming at him from every direction, to be steadfast and solid in your own conviction about how you see this country and what you believe is possible for the future of this country. I think that takes a lot of guts.”
When Obama presumably seeks a second term in 2012, “I would do whatever they ask me to do. I’m open,” she said.
Winfrey, who caught flack from some fans for endorsing Obama for the Democratic nomination, said she hasn’t thought about how the cable channel over which she presides as chairman might figure in the national election.
“I’m really just trying to get on the air,” she said, lightly. “I’m trying to think of the role OWN is going to play on Jan. 2, and the 3rd and the 4th.”
A pop culture force with a daytime podium that at its peak attracted more than 12 million viewers (it’s at nearly 7 million this season), Winfrey has created careers and successful TV shows (“Dr. Phil,” “Dr. Oz“), energized the publishing industry with her book club picks and produced distinguished films (“Precious,” “The Great Debaters“), breaking ethnic stereotypes along the way.
The 56-year-old Oprah is acutely aware of what she might be losing even as she stakes out new TV turf to promote ideas and celebrities. She was initially reluctant to surrender her daytime show, but “what I realized is the `Oprah’ show has had its time and its run and its ability to affect and influence, and that now it’s time for something else,” she said.
Rosie O’Donnell, Shania Twain, Sarah Ferguson and Winfrey’s close pal, Gayle King, all have first-season shows on the commercially-supported OWN, which will offer a varied mix of talk and reality shows, film acquisitions and original documentaries. Included in the lineup: a cooking series with Cristina Ferrare, a sex advice show with Dr. Laura Berman, style makeovers with Carson Kressley, a series about the mother-daughter relationship of Naomi and Wynonna Judd, a “docu-reality” series about women prisoners in Indiana and the theatrical release “Precious.”
Winfrey’s hand is on the entire schedule but she’ll also be onstage in such series as “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” in which she travels the world in search of interesting stories, and “Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes,” a chronicle of her final talk show year. She will also be seen in the series “Oprah Presents Master Class” and “Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star.”
OWN will be programmed around the clock, with repeats filling overnight hours.
On the cusp of her new media adventure, a Harpo Inc. joint venture with Discovery Communications (which has a reported $189 million commitment to the channel), Winfrey said she has shed any worries she had as OWN experienced an uneven and delayed gestation.
The channel starts with a modest base, taking over Discovery Health and its average 250,000 daily viewers. Among cable channels, heavyweights such as ESPN and USA average about 3 million prime-time viewers.
“I’m not afraid at all. I talked to my friend Gayle this morning and she goes, `You sure are calm for a girl who’s going to launch a network,’” Winfrey recounted, then explained her approach: “It’s like preparing to run a marathon and then the week before you run, you have to relax yourself in order to be able to take on the run.”
Winfrey was at times serene as she talked about OWN and politics – and downright playful. Asked if she had talked to Obama recently, she took on a mock tone of hauteur.
“Well, as a matter of fact, the last time I spoke to him I was at the Kennedy Center Honors,” Winfrey responded. But she dropped the Ms. Cool act as she giddily recalled being celebrated alongside a musician she adored as a girl: Paul McCartney. The two, sitting side-by-side during the ceremony earlier this month, ended up clasping hands.
When she and the former Beatle joined in on the chorus of “Hey Jude,” Winfrey lost it.
“I was weeping, but weeping because I could feel the moment of myself as the 12-year-old girl on welfare in the ghetto of Milwaukee, Wis., having that dream and never imagining that the dream would take me to the balcony of the Kennedy Center holding Paul McCartney’s hand. Is that unbelievable or what?”
Late this week, Winfrey visited OWN’s L.A. offices for a final rally-the-troops meeting.
Then it’s up to viewers who have so often approved what Winfrey gives them. She hopes they’re patient as OWN finds its footing.
“This is the beginning, and the beginning of a great opportunity to use television for purposeful programming, which is the only reason I’m doing it,” she said.
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