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Monday, 15 August, 2011 5:49 PM

Building a Bridge: The Oprah Winfrey Network’s Commitment to Country (CMA)

Photo courtesy of OWN

Shania Twain in Las Vegas on "Why Not? with Shania Twain."


By Joseph Hudak
© 2011 CMA Close Up News Service


When The Judds’ self-titled reality series wrapped its sixth episode in May on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), it was followed immediately by the premiere of “Why Not? with Shania Twain,” the Country superstar’s own revealing documentary series. Coincidental scheduling? Hardly. The fledgling cable network is happily aware of this genre’s pull.

“The truth is we know that Country Music appeals to a massive audience,” said Lisa Erspamer, CEO, OWN. “And we all love Country Music. It’s a big part of our audience base, and we think that The Judds and Shania Twain are compelling, dynamic women with real stories that our viewers can relate to. It felt like the perfect pairing.”

Given the long history of showcasing Country artists as guests on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” it was a natural fit, especially in the case of Naomi and Wynonna. “We had The Judds on the ‘Oprah’ show many times over the years,” said Erspamer, who served as a Co-Executive Producer on the iconic daily talk show, which aired its final new episode in May. “What I loved about them is that they’ve been through everything at least once. Maybe you don’t relate to one piece of their story, but God knows there will be a piece that you do relate to.”

Audiences apparently did just that. Upon its April 10 debut, “The Judds” drew more than 1.7 million total viewers over its two-hour premiere, which followed Naomi and Wynonna as they prepared for and embarked on their final tour, “The Last Encore.” But while their reunion onstage may have been the framework of the series, its engine was the mother’s and daughter’s famously complex relationship. Coupled with a string of unexpected revelations, including Naomi’s shocking memories of being abused as a child, “The Judds” was not short on drama.

“It was a mix of having them be together on a daily basis,” said Kerry Hansen, The Judds’ Manager of 17 years and an Executive Producer of the series.

“They hadn’t performed with each other on a tour since 1999, so it brought up a lot of family baggage. But it ended up changing their relationship and we’re thankful for it.”

The idea to do such a behind-the-scenes series had been floating around since 2004, according to Hansen. But it was the reaction to the duo’s performance at CMA Music Festival in 2009 that made them realize the timing was right to both organize a farewell tour and document its preparation.

“We had no intention of another reunion,” Hansen said. “But that night (onstage at Nashville’s LP Field), Wy brought Naomi out and they sang ‘Love Can Build a Bridge’” (written by John Barlow Jarvis, Naomi Judd and Paul Overstreet), and 50,000 people started singing it back to them. They came offstage and looked at me like, ‘Holy cow! If there’s a time to do it, now is probably it.’”

Erspamer echoes this now-or-never sentiment. “Over the years, we’ve talked with them about doing something like this. When the opportunity for them to go on tour again arose, their team called and said they were ready to do a docu-series. The timing worked out perfectly because now there was a network,” she said, noting the series’ enthusiastic reception among OWN staffers, an encouraging sign that “The Judds” might connect with audiences of all ages. “Our internal team here, our younger group who may not have grown up with The Judds, really locked into the series. To see a younger generation get to know these great artists was a fun opportunity for us — and sort of unexpected too. It appealed to a very broad scope of people.”

According to Hansen, that broad scope interested Team Judd from the beginning. “All along, we were hoping that OWN would be the home for this because of the relationship with Oprah and her audience and what that means,” said Hansen. “I think there is a trust between The Judds and Oprah.

Part of that is because of the way Oprah exposes the truth. It was obvious when she met with us she was going to care about their lives and what they are doing.”

As does Erspamer, the apparent glue in the relationship between Oprah and The Judds, and Oprah and Twain. “Lisa and I have been doing business together for 10 years,” Hansen said. “We all know each other so well, and Lisa and Wynonna are friends. It’s a nice partnership.”

Twain’s Manager Jason Owen, who heads Sandbox Entertainment, credits Erspamer with not only helping to get “Why Not? with Shania Twain” on the air, but also with the steady stream of Country artists that have been guests on “Oprah.” One particularly dramatic moment followed Twain’s appearance on May 3, after which Oprah stunned her studio audience with two-day passes to CMA Music Festival, free accommodations at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and a private brunch hosted by Twain during the Festival. Twain will also be autographing her new book, From This Moment On, on Friday during the Festival at Bridgestone Arena.

“Lisa deserves most of the credit,” Owen said, praising her and OWN’s commitment to Country Music. “She’s an enormous music fan and has great relationships with some of the biggest music superstars in the world. I have had a longstanding relationship with the ‘Oprah’ show primarily because of Lisa and her team. I think she knows that this is a market that is not really tapped. Yes, CMT and GAC are obviously the specific Country home, but no other network has really done anything like this and paid this close attention to what is really the heart of America — Country Music.”

If the theme of “The Judds” was the mother-daughter bond, Twain’s introspective series, which finales June 12, is about conquering fear. “Why Not? with Shania Twain” finds a vulnerable Twain struggling to regain the confidence to sing in public in the aftermath of her split from husband Robert “Mutt” Lange. That openness and willingness to expose herself so fully, Owen acknowledges, also came from Twain’s trust in Oprah and Erspamer. “Shania fell in love with Lisa and loved her ideas and what she wanted to do with the network,” he said, recalling the series pitch meeting, in which Twain herself gave a presentation.

“It was really unbelievable,” said Erspamer, with a chuckle. “I was with Shania Twain in a hotel room watching her PowerPoint presentation. She has been extremely involved in the creative of her series. In the past, we’ve had her on ‘Oprah’ and she is notoriously private. I think what’s so fascinating is to watch her open up. She talks about her fear of singing. For an artist like her to admit that is very big. I think it will help other people break through their own fears.”

And possibly help Twain reach a new fan base? Owen believes so. “I think that people will see her in a much different way. When they see the realness and the honesty that she puts on in the series, it’s really going to connect,” he said, noting the nurturing sensibility shared by the series and the network. “The message OWN sends, from the marketing to the creative to obviously Oprah herself, is right in line with the series. It feels natural, safe and solid, all the way around.”

Hansen believes The Judds can see a similar increase in fans, thanks to Oprah’s broad appeal and reputation. “She’s going to reach people that we don’t necessarily reach as The Judds when they’re touring or out promoting products,” he said. “With the Oprah Winfrey Network, when she puts her stamp on things, it gives them legitimacy.”

Not to mention momentum, as Twain will time the release of her first single in six years, the self-penned “Today Is Your Day,” to the final episode of her show airing June 12. Despite the occasional “OMG” water cooler moment, neither “The Judds” nor “Why Not? with Shania Twain” is stereotypically reality television. “The way you expose and talk about something can easily make for a train wreck,” Hansen acknowledged. “None of us was interested in doing that. It’s all in the way you present an idea. That is one of the things I respect about Oprah: She has created a network that gives out real information in an honest way and is not all about being negative. It’s about being truthful.”

Twain was concerned with the truth as well; that played a key role in inspiring her to do the project. “She was so closed off for so long and extremely private, but she wanted to tell her story the way she wanted to, instead of the way everyone else has been telling it,” said Owen, surprised by the willingness of Twain, an Executive Producer on the series, to be so transparent on camera. “I really felt there were lots of things that she’d take out (during editing). But she didn’t; she left it all in.”

That honesty, coupled with the ability to tell a relatable, moving story, is a cornerstone of Twain’s music specifically and Country Music in general. In fact, it was the main attraction for OWN and a component of the network’s long-term goals. “One thing that’s really important to us is compelling storytelling, and Country Music is well known for that,” said Erspamer, who is open to the possibility of adding more Country-themed productions to OWN. “All of the music is about love, redemption and healing. That’s the type of storytelling we are doing on OWN and plan to do more of.

“We would consider anybody who has a great story and is willing to let us go along for the ride,” she concluded. “We have so many people in Country Music with whom we’ve loved working with over the years, and Country Music just gets bigger and bigger. It’s the universal themes that run through Country that make people just love it.”

The season finale of “Why Not? with Shania Twain” airs Sunday, June 26 at 10 PM/ET on OWN.

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Photo courtesy of OWN

Naomi and Wynonna Judd of "The Judds" is Detroit's exclusive media outlet for this syndicated weekly column!




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Unauthorized duplication or use of Text, Photos, Videos, Site Template, Graphics and or Site Design is Prohibited by Federal and International laws. See our Notice/Disclaimer.