Oprah Winfrey Oprah Winfrey

The girl from Mississippi has conquered daytime TV, publishing, radio, film and next, at noon on January 1, Oprah Winfrey launches what she calls "one big old challenge." The media mogul and philanthropist introduces OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, a 24/7 cable channel devoted, according to its website, "to connecting you to your best self and to the world."

The inspirational channel, complete with its iconic name, was first conceived by Winfrey and her longtime companion, Stedman Graham, in 1992, as they bemoaned the lurid tabloid talk shows in vogue at the time. "I always knew The Oprah Winfrey Show would lead to the next thing," she recalls. "'I would be a light carrier,' I wrote in my journal." It wasn't until 2007, when Discovery Communications chief David Zaslav suggested they partner in a new network (to replace the low-rated Discovery Health), that her dream became a real possibility. "What we're trying to do with OWN," explains CEO Christina Norman, "is extend what it is that Oprah's done on television so well for the past 25 years: celebrate our audience, give them tools to live their best life and entertain them."

The joint venture had some prelaunch difficulties, but all is reportedly well now, especially since Oprah agreed to increase her on-camera time from 35 to 70 hours a year (down from the 130 she currently puts in on her talk show). Initially she will only make limited on-air appearances, but come fall she will debut her new prime-time traveling interview show, Oprah's Next Chapter, and she has promised to appear on the channel every day.

Even for a brand phenomenon like Oprah Winfrey, launching a new cable network — especially one with a high channel number — will not be easy (a channel finder can be found at oprah.com/own). OWN will reach nearly 80 million homes and analysts predict that the network will find a million viewers by the end of 2011. While that's a strong number for a new cable channel, it's a far cry from The Oprah Winfrey Show's average audience of nearly seven million viewers. "The field out there is getting a bit crowded, with lots of cable outlets going after the same group," admits Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media, "but it's Oprah, and we should never underestimate her."

"Anyone who says people won't seek out this channel doesn't understand the cachet that Oprah brings," notes media analyst Bill Carroll of the Katz Television Group. "Though getting them in the tent is doable, having them watch on a consistent basis is a different task."

We'll soon learn whether those viewers will help Oprah achieve her OWN dream. If they're anything like devoted fans RoseAnn Ribando of the Bronx and Laura Edelstein of Delray Beach, Florida, the forecast is good. Ribando, who's looking forward to shows with Winfrey's protégés, says that she and her friends will seek out OWN on cable, "because anything from Oprah has to be good." Edelstein agrees: "Of course I'll follow her! She's wonderful and I'll watch the shows even if she won't be on them. I know they'll be interesting."

For Oprah, the goal is to satisfy these fans now — and in the future. "I'm going to be there to get this network launched," she says. "I have a commitment to do a show on the channel for the next several years to try to get things off to as good a start as possible. But if in 25 years, I'm sitting there on the air in my rocking chair, something went wrong."

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