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Oprah’s New Show: How She Won by Backing Down

A long, excruciating game of chicken between Oprah Winfrey and her new business partner, Discovery Communications, finally ended earlier today. Oprah blinked. But it’s still not exactly clear who really won: Discovery, for getting Oprah back on TV despite her plans to retire, or Oprah, for getting her new life of semi-retirement subsidized by her business partners.

A little background: Ever since Oprah announced she was starting a 24-hour cable network in January 2008, her partners at Discovery had been wondering if she would bring her talk show with her. Oprah alone, mind you, was an enormous get: The woman responsible for launching and enabling so many great new franchises (Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray, Dr. Oz, Suze Orman, Bob Greene, O, The Oprah Magazine) was a natural choice to become a cable-TV mogul; she’d been daydreaming about launching OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network for years before Discovery came along. But the big question ever since on the Discovery side of the equation is just how important The Oprah Winfrey Show was to the overall identity and appeal of Oprah herself. Would Oprah’s loyal public sit still and watch a network filled with friends of Oprah but not The Oprah Winfrey Show? Oprah had built a successful magazine without writing every article, true, but she was on the cover every month. Having Oprah just in bumpers and promos between TV shows didn’t seem like exactly the same thing. As David Zaslav, the CEO of Discovery, privately worried, Discovery getting Oprah Winfrey without The Oprah Winfrey Show was like getting the NFL without the games.

So starting in 2008, Zaslav had waged a stealth campaign, actively trying to persuade Oprah behind the scenes (to the extent a cable-TV executive can persuade the most successful woman in the world) that it would be in her own best interest for OWN to succeed, and the best way to do that would be for her to be on that network as much as possible. It was a tough sell; Oprah had been saying for years in interviews that she was tired of her show, displaying nothing short of contempt for a lot of the people who appeared on it just to vent their pain. She was tired, ready for a change, but still at a loss for what that change might be.

Today at a presentation to advertisers in New York, Oprah essentially announced she’d come around to Zaslav’s way of thinking. OWN’s lineup will include Oprah's Next Chapter, in which she will be "getting untethered from the chairs, opening up her world and taking you with her," according to a network statement — "a whole new kind of Oprah show" with "riveting conversations with the people we all want to hear from, in some very unexpected places," from the "Taj Mahal to [Oprah’s] beloved oak tree, the Great Wall to her own teahouse." But if you look a little more closely, you’ll see that Oprah is getting a pretty good deal with this show. Besides the lack of a studio audience, there are three things about Oprah’s Next Chapter that are significantly different from The Oprah Winfrey Show:

• It won’t be on every day. The network said this show will run about three times a week. Consider this: Since announcing OWN, Oprah has had historic TV moments with Sarah Palin, Whitney Houston, Mackenzie Philips, and (coming soon!) Rielle Hunter. Since announcing her retirement, Oprah must have been wondering how to keep those moments coming without having to make it feel like such a day job. Oprah’s Next Chapter gives her the flexibility to keep doing it, without shackling her to a real schedule. The big question is, will her audience tune in at her convenience?

• It will air at night, not during the day. This may be a business decision as much as anything. One of the more surprising things Oprah’s organization learned from the launch of O, The Oprah Magazine is that most of the wildly successful magazine’s readers aren’t regular viewers of The Oprah Winfrey Show. They are wealthier, and they work during the day — and they attract a much higher class of advertising. Oprah knows her daytime audience has been dwindling for years (it’s about 7 million now, down from a peak of about 12 million). By airing at night, Oprah may be able to capture hundreds of thousands of new viewers — "mom-trepreneurs," as one source calls them — who work during the day and could never watch her show. Don’t call it a comeback!

• Bye, Chicago Oprah; hello, Oprah of the world! The show will happen wherever Oprah wants to be, anywhere in the world. She’ll be able to alternate name guests like Tom Cruise with visits to her school in South Africa — turning her new life into a vicarious TV diary for her viewers. The Washington Post’s TV blog had the most cynical reaction to this: “Because Oprah has figured out a way to gallivant around the world and get to write it off as a business expense. Sweet.” Another way of looking at it is that this show turns Oprah into both the next Barbara Walters and the next Larry King — creator of appointment television with major guests, but with the real subject always remaining Oprah.

Back at Discovery, David Zaslav must be heaving a sigh of relief. He’d made a bet that Oprah wouldn’t be able to stay away from being on TV, and it paid off. As a source close to him told me recently, "Oprah has been nourishing an audience for 25 years. These people don't retire."

But the real winner, as it always must be, is Oprah. She’ll be able to do what she wants when she wants it, and stay foremost in our hearts. This truly could be her best life.

The O in Network [NYM]

Photo: Getty Images