Ed Martin is reporting daily from the Television Critics Association tour exclusively for Jack Myers Media Business Report subscribers. His weekly report will continue to appear at MediaBizBloggers.com.
There were several compelling panels during the cable portion of the Summer 2011 Television Critics Association tour, but only one came excitingly to life in the way that many TCA panels used to with some frequency, back in the days when they were largely populated with veteran stars and producers who had stories to tell, rather than newcomers with little to say.
The TCA firework was none other than former daytime personality Rosie O'Donnell, on hand to promote her upcoming nightly talk and entertainment show on OWN. O'Donnell, you'll recall, flamed out near the end of her syndicated daytime series and famously ended her tenure on The View after a particularly heated exchange with co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck. But all that seemed to be in the distant past when O'Donnell took the TCA stage. For the most part, the OWN O'Donnell reminded me of the Rosie who made the early years of her syndicated daytime series the most enjoyable feel-good talk show since the years of Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin, rather than the opinionated loud-mouth who hosted The View for a turbulent year and helped turn it into one of the most unpleasant viewing experiences of the last decade.
I wasn't alone in my response – O'Donnell won over most every critic and reporter in the room as she entertainingly revealed the details of her new show. "It's going to be different from the old show in that when I was 33 I think the appeal of my program was there was an authentic, genuine appreciation of pop culture," she cheerfully explained. "I loved these people, like [Barbra] Streisand and Tom Cruise. The concept that I could meet them was really beyond my belief, and now I'm 50, and both of those people have stayed in my house, right? So the enthusiasm that I had for celebrities has changed. I have evolved and grown, and the show is going to be reflective of that."
"It's not going to be your average show where three celebrities come on promoting something [like] on Letterman and Regis and all those other shows," she continued. "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. I will do what I do with refillable bits. We'll have some audience segments, and we're gonna end with a fun, refillable different game every time." (I may be overreacting here, but it looks as though "refillable" is going to become one of those strange words that only people in television use, like "wheelhouse," or "funny" as a noun. Wait for it.)
There were times during the panel when it was clear that the headline making O'Donnell still lurks beneath the newly calm and funny O'Donnell, as when one reporter asked if her activism on a number of issues might become a part of the new show.
"We're going to have a controversy segment," she answered with a straight face to a smattering of nervous laughter. "No, we're not," she continued, to a much louder response.
Then it was O'Donnell's turn to laugh. "Look at you all, [typing] 'Controversial segment. Send.'
"We're not," she repeated, with a caveat. "But … 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. I don't know why this one became the kind of news driver that it did, and 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. So we're not going to look for controversy, but should it be germane to what's happening in the world, I'm sure we will bring up current events.
"Not in a way like attacking Tom Selleck or anything, because when you've done that once, really…," O'Donnell joked again, this time referring to her on-air dust-up with Selleck about the issue of gun control, one of the unfortunate moments that brought her syndicated talk series to a sorry end.
O'Donnell did such an outsize job selling her series that some critics (myself included) felt she sold the entire network in the process. Regardless, her session was a big win for OWN. In a smart publicity strategy, she was introduced by Oprah Winfrey, the newly self-appointed CEO of OWN, who spoke briefly about upcoming plans for her network. Winfrey's was a surprise appearance -- the better to avoid a media feeding frenzy -- and a largely understated one. In that capacity I think Winfrey did a better job of defining and promoting her network than in her somewhat over-produced and over-long appearance at the January 2011 TCA tour.