As we watch Finding Sarah, a six-part series that premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. and will be repeated liberally throughout the week, it also seems that Suze and Phil might help the original Fergie in less tangible, if more important, ways. Not that anyone's recommending TV personalities as the first choice for emotional therapy.
The show may also be therapeutic for the fledgling OWN network, whose first six months have been disappointing.
Expectations in the fall had run high, maybe a couple of million viewers for its more exciting shows, putting them in the league of a Lifetime Movie Channel original. Network president Christina Norman tried to play them down: "We look to double Discovery Health's ratings . . . in prime time," she said in December, before OWN took over Discovery Health's cable real estate. "But it's a marathon, not a sprint."
OWN broke fast out of the gate, but even Norman's avowed modest hopes were dashed as the audience settled around 300,000 prime-time viewers - about a 15 percent gain over Discovery Health, but no justification for the more than $200 million Discovery has pumped into the venture. And Norman won't be around at the marathon's finish line. She was dumped May 6. Discovery boss Peter Liguori will run OWN for the time being, even though he's more experienced with the kind of ambitious and frequently male-oriented programming that he oversaw as the head of FX and Fox Broadcasting Co.
A few days after taking that role, he was left to trumpet OWN's latest high point, the premiere movie of the "Documentary Club" series, Becoming Chaz, about the gender change of Cher's daughter. Not exactly Everest, it averaged 750,000 viewers and landed fifth in its cable time period among the 25-54 demographic that the network is selling.
Noah Everist (no relation to the mountain), who is broadcast supervisor in the Compass Point Media unit of the Minneapolis ad agency Campbell Mithun, isn't surprised at OWN's struggles. "What Oprah is starting to discover," he said, "is that content is still king, and with 24 hours a day needing to be filled, you can only run Oprah's All Stars so many times during the week."
(All Stars, featuring Orman, Phil, and Dr. Mehmet Oz, is one of OWN's top draws).
There is a pattern. Winfrey was touted as a big force behind the Oxygen Network, along with TV mogul Marcy Carsey (The Cosby Show, Roseanne) and Geraldine Laybourne, who founded Nickelodeon. It launched 11 years ago with a $3 million Super Bowl ad. Now owned by Comcast, it still fights on the fringes, so much so that Paris Hilton barely got noticed there when her new reality show bowed June 1.
"This time around," Everist said, "it was well-publicized that Oprah was going to approach this network differently. Her talk show is now over. I'll be curious to see how much time she has to dedicate to OWN and see if they can turn it around."
Finding Sarah would appear to be a modest start. Ferguson is remarkably open, down-to-earth, and relatable, even if she once was married to the man once second in line to be king of the United Kingdom. She laments a total lack of self-worth and tells a sad story of a girl whose mother decamped to Argentina to marry a polo player and a father who called her a "sheep's ass."
"I think that Sarah is completely and utterly worthless and pointless," she says in a voice-over early in the first episode.
So she visits Dr. Phil, who tells her she's emotionally bankrupt. To deal with her near financial bankruptcy, money guru Orman visits her at the beautiful estate Ferguson's ex-husband, Prince Andrew, has let her inhabit. (She also has a chauffeur-driven Bentley, but it's not clear where that comes from.)
"I was surprised at how lost she really was," Orman tells the camera.
The pop advice that two of Oprah's all-stars dish out seems OK, probably worth a little more than viewers and Ferguson herself are paying for it.
Phil has admitted he no longer practices psychology; Today.com contributor Bob Considine reported that California authorities don't require Phil to have a license because they see him primarily as an entertainer. Orman was once an executive at Merrill Lynch and Prudential Bache Securities. Those firms certainly are concerned with clients' net worth, but I doubt if they have their advisers ask, as Orman asks Sarah, "How do you get self-worth?"
Still, the helpers seem compassionate, and Ferguson's story is so fascinating that her "journey" makes for good reality television. Perhaps if she got some real therapy, she could realize her own appeal and motivational gifts and host her own show on a network so desperate for material it will premiere another new series, Ryan & Tatum: The O'Neals, next Sunday. These spoiled and self-involved D-listers have about 1 percent of the duchess' charisma, and the show is unwatchable.
Finding Sarah "may be a step in the right direction," said Everist. "It's only a six-part series. Maybe it will turn out to be a test, to see if she works on OWN and can become more active."
9 p.m. Sunday on OWN
Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http:// go.philly.com/jonathanstorm.