Nearly a decade after she left her successful daily daytime show to take care of her children, O'Donnell's "The Rosie Show" premieres Monday on the Oprah Winfrey Network. O'Donnell made the decision after Winfrey visited her home for what became a four-hour meeting.
"I said I would want to carry the torch of what she had done so well," O'Donnell said in an interview as she sat in her office at Harpo Studios in Chicago, pictures of pets and children on the shelves behind her desk. O'Donnell tapes in the same space where Winfrey taped "The Oprah Winfrey Show" before it ended in May after 25 years.
They chatted about O'Donnell's life and why she wanted to go back to television, O'Donnell said.
"At the end she said, `Let's do this.' I said, `Let's do this.' I feel sort of a responsibility to reach for her standard of excellence," O'Donnell said about Winfrey.
The two women have lots in common: Both have had self-named magazines; both say they would be teachers if they weren't in entertainment; both shared the Daytime Emmy for Best Talk show Host in 1998; and now both will share the same cable network and audience.
It seems a good fit for O'Donnell, a 49-year-old mother of four whose show-starting monologues joke about menopause, weight gain and depression. She promises longer, in-depth chats with a single celebrity after little or no preinterviewing by her staff for the hourlong show.
"We have to evolve it in a way that's authentic," said O'Donnell, who is friends with mega-celebrities such as Madonna and Tom Cruise. She said her endearing, fanlike curiosity about the famous has changed over the years.
"At almost 50 my interest in celebrity is how it affects our culture," she said.
O'Donnell will take questions from the audience. There may be a musical guest and each show has a game show segment, O'Donnell's heart still broken after losing "The Price Is Right" hosting job to Drew Carey. "At the end of every show we're having our own `Price Is Right,"' O'Donnell tells her studio audience during a taping before a large lighted game called "Flash-O-Matic" descends from the rafters.
The show has signature Rosie-style charm. She walks around the set during commercial breaks to chat with her audience. There are giveaways and a colorful burst of confetti to finish everything off.
Winfrey has been lending her celebrity to promote O'Donnell. The pair appears together in preview spots and Internet videos, and O'Donnell joined Winfrey on the cover of O magazine. It's the talk-show queen's efforts to bolster her struggling namesake station.
O'Donnell calls OWN's January debut a soft launch and said she considers this Monday's premieres of "The Rosie Show" followed by Winfrey's "Oprah's Lifeclass" the network's hard launch. O'Donnell is on at 7 p.m. EDT leading into Winfrey's prime-time program at 8 p.m. EDT. "Oprah's Lifeclass" will have Winfrey share her feelings about old segments from "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
There is a certain amount of pressure to build OWN's audience, said Bill Carroll, a television syndication expert with Katz Television Group in New York.
"Rosie has to come on and be a little wiser, a little older, but certainly has to be the upbeat Rosie because she's on Oprah's network," Carroll said. "It needs to be fun and it needs to be some celebrity and it needs to be empowering. If you can put those together ... then you'll have a show that attracts the Oprah/Rosie audience."
Many viewers' more recent memories of O'Donnell aren't from her 1990s show, but from dust-ups with other celebrities. She argued with Tom Selleck about gun control and Donald Trump about Miss USA. When O'Donnell was on "The View" in 2007 she and Elisabeth Hasselbeck had a confrontation about the Iraq war.
That's not what she's going for this time around, O'Donnell said.
"It's not a political show," O'Donnell said. "It's not an antagonistic show. I do have a strong political voice and in some ways that will come out but that's not the entree."
Winfrey has called O'Donnell a "great competitor" turned "partner and friend." The new sign outside Harpo Studios reads: "The Rosie Show and the former home of The Oprah Winfrey Show."
"I'm not a boss," Winfrey said when the sign was unveiled last month. "We're partners. We collaborate on everything. You don't tell Rosie what to do."
O'Donnell talks about Winfrey with a sense of awe, saying she's watched Winfrey for half of her life.
"I believe in her," O'Donnell said. "I believe in who she is. I believe in her message and I have for 25 years."
Winfrey only offered two pieces of advice, O'Donnell said: to be herself and not to resist anything.
"Luckily my age is on my side for this," O'Donnell said. "I think I have a much better understanding of who I am, what I'm doing and why."
A native New Yorker, O'Donnell has made a home for herself on Chicago's North Side and has been sampling the city's culture. She's tried Chicago-style pizza and taken a tour of the Grant Park area around Buckingham Fountain.
She calls Chicago "epically beautiful," although she's worried about the winters.
"I feel like I'm getting ready for the frozen tundra," she said.