Oprah’s OWN Story

(This is an abridged version of the cover story of the Oct. 7 edition of Multichannel News. For the full version, click on the link below.)

In a wide-ranging interview in her Los Angeles offices, OWN CEO Oprah Winfrey sat down with Multichannel News editor in chief Mark Robichaux and programming editor R. Thomas Umstead to discuss the network’s rising fortunes. Coming off its most successful quarter in its history and reporting positive cash flow growth, the network’s current performance is in sharp contrast to the headlines that followed the network’s poor ratings debut in its initial year.
Through all the negative headlines, Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav remained as bullish on the network as he had from the day he brought Oprah into Discovery’s orbit. With Discovery firmly in its corner, OWN in July 2011 named a new CEO: Winfrey herself. She also brought the presidents of her Harpo Studios, Erik Logan and Sheri Salata in as own co-presidents.  Winfrey, Logan and Salata talk about the journey through OWN’s development.

MCN: Are you better off having gone through this trial by fire?
Oprah Winfrey: Yes. It had to happen this way. I had a profound moment, you probably read or heard me tell the story of sitting at [Saturday Night Live creator] Lorne Michaels’s feet at David Geffen’s house one night, this was several years ago now, and him saying to me, “You have no idea what you’ve done, you have no idea, my dear.” And I was going, “Well, no … it’s going to be just fine.” He goes, “It takes three to five years.” I go, “Well, I think we can do it in a year.”

He goes, “No, not even you. You have no idea. First of all, he goes, “You’re going be in the learning curve of your life. … Did you hear me? Your life.”

Sheri Salata: I don’t know if that surprises you to hear me say that. I’m glad for what we went through. Not 100%, I’m almost there. I’m almost processed where I can say yes, because you know why? How sweet this week is. We had a lot of success and we walked off —

Winfrey: I am not there yet.

Salata: I understand.

Winfrey: It certainly would have been so much easier, though, to have waited until the Oprah show was done. I will say we have eaten from the plates of humble pie. [Laughter.]

Erik Logan: Several times, several.

Winfrey: We know what humble pie tastes like.

Salata: It’s an acquired taste.

Winfrey: And you know what is fantastic about it? I will never, I mean this week is great and I am doing the hula, but I will never, ever take success for granted again.

MCN: What do you want to get out of this interview?
Winfrey: I wanted to be able to be as truthful and as open with my hula-hoop self as I could with you guys about where we are now and what we see for the future. I see a future not when we were slugging up the mountain — I believed it could happen but there were days where I wasn’t so sure. I was thinking: Is this the right format? Can you do what you want to do?

What I realized then it’s not whether the people are ready, it’s are you ready to accept where you are right now and are you ready, meaning myself, our team, to offer the audience and spoon feed them in ways that they can receive it. Not everybody wants Super Soul Sunday, but a lot of people do! And my greatest, greatest moment on earth is going to be when that’s the No. 1 show on this network.

To be able to talk to thought leaders and writers about ideas that really matter. That is the reason I have a network. And the most extraordinary thing, the thing that gives me the greatest joy that makes me wanna double hula, is the responses from the audiences on that show. I could pull up any Sunday, any given — And the things that people say that that show has done for them you could have written on your tombstone.

MCN: Let’s talk about some of the other shows you like.
Winfrey: I felt about [Iyanla: Fix My Life] the same way I felt about myself when I got syndicated. I certainly believed that what we were doing in Chicago would work for the rest of the country. Why? Because I felt a connection to the hearts and spirits of people.

To read the full interview, click here.