Earlier this year famed talk show host turned billionaire Oprah Winfrey admitted that if she’d known running her own network would be this hard she might not have done it.

After all, she was leaving her career on top. Everyone and anyone had desired a seat on her daytime talk couch as she was the king and queen maker – the dream maker. The sometimes up and sometimes down nature of OWN – the Oprah Winfrey Network –  has not mirrored her basic TV charm. Leadership at the network has changed hands and the programing at times seems somewhat aimless. Is it a self-help network? A woman’s network? Would people watch something by Oprah that didn’t feature Oprah? Apparently not.

But despite these setbacks, Winfrey is not someone who retreats easily. So even though she’d stepped away from her eponymous show, she started a new one on OWN that was more about interviews and personal adventures than sitting in those old chairs in front of a live audience. She’s even made a documentary about her struggles with the network to air … on the network. But even a simple chat with Winfrey wasn’t as easy to sell as it had been back in the day. The struggle at OWN had taken off some of O’s luster, but a consummate show woman, she knew how to get it back: the celebrity tell-all.

There was a lot of tut-tutting and eye rolls when Winfrey brought the Kardashian family in for a chat, but no one should have been surprised. While she’s become spiritual in later years, a much younger Winfrey rose to prominence on the backs of sensational daytime guests and stories that were typical in the hyper-competitive, exploitive, pre-reality show days of 1980s talk. It was never so much Jerry Springer, but not necessarily above a good, tabloid tawdry tale.

Winfrey famously gave up programming toward lowest common denominator after she didn’t need it anymore to get ratings, but she’s still a business woman. She’s not above going back to the tabloid well to water her media garden.

Most of “Oprah’s Next Chapter” interview subjects have leaned more toward the sensational than “something Oprah thought was neat that day.” Fewer upstarts Winfrey can turn into stars and a lot more Paris Jackson talking about her father Michael Jackson’s death and Whitney Houston’s daughter Bobbi Kristina talking about life without Mom to the tune of a record 3.5 million viewers in March.

After all, if you’re celeb with a shocking, sad, or even tawdry tale to tell, Winfrey still has the panache to make her the go-to-news doyenne for gravitas with a soft celebrity-friendly touch. Sure, you could give the same interview to Barbara Walters or Katie Couric, but they’re no O. Even with a bit of luster knocked off, her media star still shines the brightest.

But is it working?

This week Winfrey has invited pop singer Rihanna for her patented version of emotional open heart surgery. Clips are already out featuring a weepy Rihanna recounting how she found compassion for her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, even as she was sad, hurt, and angered by his assault. Rihanna says she felt Brown needed “help” and was being labeled a “monster” instead of receiving that help.

It’s both a powerful insight into the mindset of women in relationships marred by domestic violence and prime ratings bait for the fledgling network. The Kardashian interview, along with those with Jackson and Brown, have given OWN a much-needed ratings boost. In the spring, leading into summer, there were double-digit gains in the network’s ratings. There is also new programming lined up for 2012 dealing with relationships and ever more Winfrey.

So if you tune into OWN to see celebrities open up to Winfrey in a way they’d be unlikely to break down for anyone else, you’re proof Winfrey’s comeback plan on the backs of celebrity sensationalism is working.

After all, famous people have a story to tell and Winfrey is still the biggest name in the celebrity confessional business. You can’t blame them for wanting to scratch each other’s backs as OWN fights for its cable TV footing.

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