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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Oprah Winfrey's bold gamble on her OWN TV network debuted to mostly positive reviews and encouraging audience numbers at the weekend, winning over some cynics with its feel-good tone.
But many stalwart Oprah fans expressed dismay that they could not receive the new OWN network without paying to upgrade their cable television packages -- money that several said they could not afford.
The OWN network, a joint venture between the influential talk show host and Discovery Communications that is aimed mostly at middle-aged women, made its debut on Saturday after three years of planning.
According to preliminary Nielsen figures, OWN was watched by an average one million Americans in prime time on Saturday, and was the third biggest ad-supported cable network with women aged 25-54.
Daytime talk show "The Oprah Winfrey Show", on free-to-air ABC, attracts about six million U.S. viewers daily. Winfrey, 56, will end the show in the fall of 2011 to focus on OWN.
Initial OWN programing included a behind-the-scenes show about the making of the last season of "The Oprah Winfrey Show", lifestyle advice from the likes of Dr. Phil MGraw and Suze Orman, and the first of a series of in-depth interviews with celebrities including record producer Jay-Z and journalist Diane Sawyer.
New York Times reviewer Alessandra Stanley called the channel a "no cynicism zone" which had "not a snicker of malice or a hint of raillery." Caryn James at Indiewire noted that beneath the "huge amount of lifestyle fluff" there was "a surprising layer of substance."
Media blogger Dan Abrams, a former general manager at cable news channel MSNBC, said his skepticism over whether OWN could create a clear identity in a crowded market had been overcome.
OWN's mission of self-discovery and celebration of one's own "best self" has impeccable timing, Abrams said.
"Weary Americans have grown fatigued with the national sports of bickering and finger pointing. Many are now seeking out a safe place on television far removed from the partisan hectoring, staged altercations and alcohol-induced 'hook-ups' that have come to dominate the airwaves," Abrams wrote in a column for his Mediaite.com website.
Matt Zoller Seitz at Salon.com said he was won over, to his surprise. "We won't just watch OWN; we will gaze upon it with awe and affection and marvel at the sweet magnificence of its founder," he said.
OWN is available in some 80 million homes, or 67 percent of U.S. households, on the channel that used to be occupied by Discovery Health. But many of Winfrey's millions of loyal fans were upset to find they could not access OWN without forking over hundreds of dollars extra to cable TV providers.
"I just cannot tell you how disillusioned (Oprah said "watch, watch, watch my new network") & disappointed. Oprah, did I miss the show that told us your new network was gonna cost us (the viewer) $$$$." wrote joeyskc on the OWN message boards on Monday.
A fan in New Orleans congratulated Winfrey on the new venture, but was concerned that "many people in our area will not be able to watch" the pay-to-view OWN channel. "We love you and will miss you," added Chey925.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte