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Will this work? Oprah's new channel takes shape

We are at that peculiar time of the year. There's not much happening now, but the entertainment racket is alive with chatter about what's coming soon.

The Television Critics Summer Press Tour is under way in Los Angeles (TOM, the Other Man who writes in this space, is there and I'll be there next week) and the U.S. network and cable channels are unveiling new shows. Press conferences, boasting network bosses, nervous producers and delighted actors. Parties. Closed-circuit screenings of hopeless shows at 6 a.m. Some shows will emerge with a huge critical boost.

Meanwhile, that mystifying Comic-Con event is ending. That TIFF thing is announcing its lineup. Watch some TV channels right now and you'll see extensive promos for series coming or returning in September. Martin Scorsese's gangster drama. Dexter awash in blood and guilt.

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In the midst of all this hype and anticipation, one news item hasn't had the attention it deserves: Some details of the coming content on Oprah Winfrey's new cable channel OWN, have emerged. Winfrey is among the most shrewd of media figures, a woman with an uncanny ability to connect with American viewers. OWN will debut in January, 2011 (it's too early to know how and when Canadians can access the channel), and Winfrey's been busy putting the pieces together. The picture the industry is getting is one of an issue-driven channel with a ton of celebrity content in the background. Plus Oprah's characteristic devotion to writers and artists and some conventional reality-TV. The overall themes, as you'd expect of Winfrey, are triumph over adversity, and generosity of spirit.

The most intriguing element to be announced is a series of documentaries made by some major Hollywood actors on topics and causes that interest them. According to reports, Winfrey has lined up Julia Roberts, Forest Whitaker, Goldie Hawn, Gabriel Byrne and Mariel Hemmingway. Roberts's doc is about real-life inspirational mothers. Forest Whitaker's work will be about the hospice program inside the notorious Angola maximum security prison in Louisiana, where most prisoners are serving a 90-year sentence. Goldie Hawn is making a film about "positive psychology and people's search for a happy life." Gabriel Byrne's work will explore homelessness in Nashville, and a particular community of homeless people living under a downtown bridge.

Winfrey has also persuaded Survivor producer Mark Burnett to create a reality show that will search for a new TV host. And we know Canadian Shania Twain will star in Why Not? With Shania Twain, which apparently follows her "rebound after a messy public divorce."

Will this work? Oddly enough the schedule looks like what CBC and CBC NN do every week. Without, of course, the Hollywood types producing the documentaries. In fact, the schedule is either a fatally flawed mixture of light and dark, or a brilliant amalgam of entertainment and earnestness. Winfrey's main value as a media figure in the U.S. culture has, for years, been her deft ability to insert into her programs and offer in her movies and mini-series a distinct alternative to the perspective presented by every mainstream American broadcaster. Little wonder that, a few years ago, Michael Moore wanted Oprah Winfrey to run for president.

Whatever happens with the conventional networks over the next few months - whether the new Hawaii Five-0 is a hit or Charlie Sheen returns to Two and a Half Men - the old model of U.S. television will remain broken. Specialty cable channels are thriving. OWN is well-placed to benefit from that. Think beyond those new hyped new shows coming this fall and take note that U.S. TV will have something truly intriguing in January, 2011. Oprah might own the future.

Airing tonight

Revealed: No Country For Animals (Global, 10 p.m.) is Kevin Newman's second summer documentary for Global and, like last week's doc about gun culture, this one is provocative and challenges cherished assumptions. The doc, written and produced by Newman and directed by Karen Pinker, is about our lax laws as they apply to the treatment of animals - from captive creatures that will become our food, to those puppy mills producing dogs that make people swoon. While some of the stories told are shocking and the undercover footage is mind-bogglingly awful, tellingly, Newman's comparison between Canadian law and European regulations is the most damming.

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Paul McCartney in Performance at the White House (PBS, 8 p.m.) is as sweet and good-natured as you'd expect. McCartney was clearly chuffed to receive the U.S. Library of Congress's George Gershwin Prize for Popular Song and delighted to play for Barack Obama, and he goes at it with great gusto. He opens with a rollicking Got to Get You into My Life, later makes cheeky reference to Michelle Obama when he sings Michelle and is generally charming and humorous. Jerry Seinfeld does a comic bit about McCartney lyrics, Stevie Wonder does We Can Work It Out, Faith Hill has a lovely version of The Long and Winding Road, and Elvis Costello performs Penny Lane. There are other cover versions too, but the night belongs to a very energized McCartney.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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