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fall tv 2013

Oprah’s Aha! Year: How the Network Boss Brought OWN Back From the Brink of Failure

Portrait by Jen Mann

In the spring of 2012, Oprah Winfrey found herself in what was for her an unusual position: She was failing.

OWN, the feel-good cable network she had launched on New Year’s Day 2011, was struggling to find an audience, its low ratings unable to meet even the modest internal targets set before its debut. The smaller-than-expected viewership meant dozens of staffers had to be laid off as Winfrey and her partners at Discovery Communications moved to stanch the flow of red ink. Big programming bets, including an expensive talk show hosted by Rosie O’Donnell, had gone bust. Almost every media account of own contained descriptors like “ratings challenged” and “beleaguered,” while one report by Wall Street analyst SNL Kagan even went so far as to speculate that if ratings didn’t improve, the network’s demise was only a matter of time. It was against this backdrop in April 2012 that Winfrey went on CBS This Morning and made a startling confession to co-anchors Charlie Rose and Gayle King: “Had I known that it was this difficult,” she said of OWN, “I might have done something else.”

The tsuris surrounding OWN’s launch were unusual for Winfrey, whose career has been marked by a series of auspicious starts. The Oprah Winfrey Show was an immediate hit when it debuted in national syndication back in 1986. A decade later, Winfrey’s book club began changing reading habits with its first selection. O, The Oprah ­Magazine was a success the minute it began rolling off presses in 2000. By contrast, OWN seemed troubled even before it went live. Winfrey and Discovery chief David Zaslav first announced their plan to transform Discovery Health Channel into OWN back in January 2008, with an eye on a fall 2009 launch. But behind-the-scenes tumult (including the exit of OWN’s first president less than a year after her hire) delayed the channel’s debut for well over a year. Making matters worse, during OWN’s birthing process, Winfrey still had her full-time job hosting TV’s No. 1 daytime talk show. She feared—­correctly, it turned out—that her split focus would hurt the network.

Winfrey, of course, finally did give up The Oprah Winfrey Show. And two months after taping her final show in May 2011, she named herself CEO and chief creative officer of the network and tapped trusted lieutenants Sheri Salata and Erik Logan to serve as presidents under her. The new trio didn’t work miracles overnight: Winfrey’s “I might have done something else” lament came nearly a year after they took day-to-day oversight of OWN. But as the network prepares to mark its third anniversary in January, evidence of an OWN turnaround is abundant. A new deal bringing Tyler Perry’s TV output to OWN has yielded immediate results, with his over-the-top soap opera, The Haves and the Have Nots, giving the network its largest audience for a weekly series. (A second show, the comedy Love Thy Neighbor, has drawn fewer eyeballs but has nonetheless greatly improved OWN’s performance on Wednesday nights.) The network’s Saturday lineup of reality shows regularly ranks among the top-ten cable networks in OWN’s target demo of adult women under 55. And while last month’s heavily hyped chat with Lindsay Lohan didn’t pop in the ratings, Winfrey has landed a slew of other one-on-one celebrity sit-downs (Rihanna, Lance Armstrong) that have drawn big Nielsen numbers and much-needed buzz. Combined, these successes have dramatically altered OWN’s standing in the cable universe: It finished August as one of the top-twenty ad-­supported networks in prime time among its target female demo, with its overall audience this summer surging by more than 60 percent over the previous year. Perhaps most important, the whispers about OWN’s imminent demise have been replaced by headlines touting its comeback, including the ones in July noting that, after years of losses, the network had notched its first-ever profitable quarter. “We have turned it around,” Winfrey says. “And I’m in a position now, sooner than I thought I would be, of being able to see the summit—I’m not at the summit, but I’m able to see it.”

The reversal of fortune may be one reason why, during a late-August interview, Winfrey seemed relaxed and much more Oprah-like than she did during her tense TV interview with Rose and King last year.

When did you first realize you needed to take action to save OWN?

It was the decision to bring in Sheri and Erik. What didn’t feel right from the beginning was, “Who are we going to get to do this? Because I have a full-time job.” I knew I was going to be ending my show in a couple of years, but I said, “I know that I do not have either the energy or the expertise or the leadership ability to do this and that.” All along, I was in angst about finding the right person—because I had made that mistake already. At the time David came to me with the idea of a network, I was in the middle of crisis at my school [in South Africa]. Although to the world it looked like it was a crisis about a dorm parent and sexual abuse, to me it looked like leadership. The foundation of the issue was the structure that was in place. I thought, Okay, you don’t want to make that mistake again, because you can’t be in two places at one time. I couldn’t be in Africa and I couldn’t be in Los Angeles. David said, “Well, that’s no reason not to do it, because we’ll find the right person.” When I first suggested Erik and Sheri, [the idea] was not welcomed with open arms, because they, too, had never done cable. So now I’d never done cable, and they’d never done cable. David was a bit hesitant.

What you ultimately agreed to was something of a compromise: You’d bring in Erik and Sheri, but OWN would stop operating as sort of this separate outpost within Discovery.

Which is what we should have done from the beginning. The biggest mistake was trying to set out on our OWN. Because I’d been advised by some people to be completely separate from Discovery—to be within Discovery, but make your own decisions and not have them involved in what you’re doing. I should have had Discovery inside the company from the beginning. And then there was the hard decision to let people go. I never imagined that, because I’ve done the opposite. I’m the person that’s taken everybody on the world cruise with their families. I’m not the person who’s laying people off.

You also had to make a big shift in the kinds of programs you put on OWN.

I have a tendency to look at everything from the point of view of: What is going to be meaningful, and uplift people? That can become too stoic and too serious—which is the same issue I suffered with at the magazine in the beginning. It needed more humor. So we [began] looking for lighter fare. Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s works. Iyanla: Fix My Life was also a turning point. Having programming that was in alignment with the vision but also left the space to widen the lane for the vision. If it were up to me, I’d be doing [Winfrey’s Sunday talk show] Super Soul Sunday conversations all the time.

Is there a line you draw? Things that you will not put on OWN?

I’m interested in doing no harm. Before, it was always, I’ve got to uplift as well as entertain. And now I can look at a thing and say, “What harm does it do?” And harm is not just violence and calling people bitches. It’s the tone of things. The role that I see myself serving is to put a mirror up to people’s lives by allowing them to see, through the storytelling that we do, their lives through other people. You can see somebody’s sorrows, but also their triumphs, and be lifted by that. You have to be responsible for the energy you’re putting out into the world. There are a lot of people, particularly in this business, who don’t give two poops about it. I’ve sat at those mogul jamborees—all the big muckety-mucks in a room, the bastions of media. And I’ve asked the question, “Where is your moral compass?” Not a lot of people are thinking about that, but I feel a responsibility to it. To whom much is given, much is expected.

Do you miss connecting to a studio audience every day?

Not in a studio. One of the things I’m preparing to do is a speaking tour. That’s what I see in the future, in terms of my connection to an audience. I don’t think I will ever be sitting in front of an audience again doing a show like Oprah. The truth is, I really don’t miss trying [to do a show] every day. If I got in the car by 8:10 a.m. and was home by 8:20 p.m., that was a good day, for 25 years. What took up the time was not the show. It’s all the other preparation, and the business of the business. I don’t miss that. But I do miss the day-to-day connection. When you tell 10 million people about something about which you are enthusiastic, and they trust you, you can get a million people to respond. I miss that immediate direct access. So now I do it through Twitter.

How involved are you in the process of developing new shows at OWN? Do you hear pitches?

Oh, yeah. Usually, it’s six people sitting in a room, and they’re coming to me with ideas. And they have what they call a ­“sizzle”—one to three minutes on whatever’s being proposed. And sometimes I don’t make it to three minutes. You just go, “Never mind, not going to do that!” Because the energy’s off. So I’ve let go of, [in singsong voice] “Everything has to be meaningful, you have to lift people up.” But the energy of it has to be on point. I do not want to put energy out into the world that is going to cause people to feel negativity. I just don’t.

So that must mean you have to say "no" to a lot of ideas, or at least be open to shows you might not automatically think to do?

So when a show is being presented, what I have learned to do is to take myself out of the way of, "Oh gee, would I like to watch that?" Because I don’t like to watch a lot of things that don’t feel like they’re meaningful to me, because I don’t like to waste time. But I have learned that there is a big, wide, diverse range of opportunity and a multitude of ways to express meaningfulness. You can express meaningfulness through humor. You can enlighten people through humor. You can make a point through humor. So I’ve had to get out of the way of myself, because the Oprah show was specifically guided by the things that I wanted to do. So [with] the network, I’ve had to take my own way of being and way of looking at the world and step out, and leave room for other ways of seeing things.

That's tough in the reality space, though. So many shows are just about creating drama.

I don’t watch a lot of television because I spend so much time having to screen things for OWN, as I was doing all this morning. But what I see, I don’t see that as a real reflection of people’s lives. Is everybody walking around calling each other names and behaving that way? I don’t think so.  We’re getting ready to do this  show called Crazy. Sexy. Life.  And it's about these four black women in New York. They’re all professional women, and they actually like each other. So they’re not calling each other bitches and ho’s all the time. They’re not standing on tables and throwing water in people’s faces. And [yet], it's fun. It's  fun, it’s humorous, but it also has heart and some depth and meaning.

What I’m really, really, really, really conscious of is the commonality in the human experience. If women in Brooklyn are experiencing their feelings about their jobs and their husbands and going back to work, they’re doing the same thing in Boston, and all over the country. The commonality in the human experience is the same. We have the same sorrows,  and the same triumphs. Joy is joy is joy. I mean, that’s why you cry over a Hallmark commercial. Because you’ve felt that yourself. I've been talking to [the producers of Crazy. Sexy. Life] about what is really real,  what is the truth, how are women really living? Instead of this exaggerated experience that I think is often created for reality TV.

Your Sunday shows are a big part of that.

The reason why I said yes to this network is to be able to have that Super Soul platform. That, to me, is the most important thing, and the thing that I intend to focus my energy on, in the future, in growing and developing. Because every week, when I get people’s responses,  I think, "Well, okay, you can put that on your tombstone." "Oh, put that on the tombstone." "What if you get cremated, where would you put it?" Somebody wrote to me last week -- I mean it really brought tears to my eyes, but I get this every week-- somebody named Marie Cahan wrote to me, "For me, there’s nothing else like this show on television. The show is nonfiction, and it speaks to me when nothing else can. It relates to me when nothing else can. It teaches me things that I couldn’t learn from any other programs, but more than anything, it makes me feel the way I want to feel, the way I wish to feel, and the way I long to feel. At times, I wish we had Super Soul network, but I know society just isn’t there yet. So for now, I’ll look forward to my soul being enlightened and enriched every Sunday-- Marie Cahan."

That makes my eyes water because I, too, had to realize, as this viewer did, that what I want to do--  the world isn’t there yet. The whole world isn’t there yet. There’s a lane for that, but there isn’t a network for that.  In the beginning, I thought there was a network for that-- you’re just going to enlighten people, and have them watch meaningful things all day long. That is not where we are as a culture. So I’m really happy to have that one little lane to focus on, and really thrilled if one person, two hundred people…now a half-million people, are watching every Sunday. That is the big thrill of my life.

Does anyone ever tell Oprah Winfrey “no”?

Oh, I hear that all the time.

From whom?

It’s Sheri and Erik. I don’t hear, “That’s a great idea, but it won’t work.” I hear, “We don’t have the money right now,” which is a very different position than I’ve ever been in. With the Oprah show, it was literally, “Okay, we want to take an entire audience to Australia. How do we do that?” When Tyler Perry first approached me and said, “I could write something for you,” I said, “I can’t afford you.” [Laughs.] So it’s now, “Can we take some money from this, and use this, and figure out a way that we can pay for a new series from Tyler? And where will that put us by the end
of next year?”

I will tell you this, and I’m not joking. I knew it was time to go when I sat in a pitch meeting for the Oprah show and somebody said, “Maybe we could take you and an audience to outer space.”

Right now, you are a huge part of the OWN identity. Is it important for you to evolve the network over the next few years so it exists beyond you to some degree? Something that lives on for 50 years?

Yeah, 100 percent. Because that’s what true leadership is—to be able to put whatever you’re doing, whether it’s your cupcake company or a network—in a position that it can sustain itself without you having to be the prominent force every day. You want to create an opportunity for other people. I love being behind the scenes and creating opportunities for other people to shine. 

You’ve gotten mostly great reviews for your performance in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Is more acting something on your agenda? Maybe in a weekly series, perhaps on OWN?

With The Butler, I was just trying to not embarrass myself. Because I was in the middle of such mishegoss with OWN at the time that I made that decision. I made it as a leap of faith when I finally said to Lee that I would do it. Because I was thinking, Maybe I should say yes, because maybe I won’t feel this bad forever. I’m glad I did. And actually, the other day I was watching something, and I thought, Wow, would I ever find that rewarding? What if I was a character on a dramatic series? I’d never thought about it before. Although years ago, before I even came to Chicago,
I just wanted to be on a soap opera. But I have evolved.

So you’d want to do a series?

Well … no. But I will tell you this. I was on the phone this morning with Scott Sanders, who produced The Color Purple on Broadway, discussing when and what I would do to come to Broadway. I’ve been looking at lots of different plays, and what would be the timing for that? So I don’t know. It’s a big, wide-open door right now.

Last year, you said you might not have started OWN had you known how tough it was going to be. Have you changed your mind about that? Are you glad to have launched a network?

Absolutely. There’s a wonderful spiritual, and also a book that Maya Angelou wrote, called “Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now.” If I had it to do over, I would just do things differently. I would definitely have waited until the Oprah show was over, instead of trying to do it all at the same time. So do I have regrets about that? Not deep ones. I learned so much about myself, and sticking with it, and not giving up. I learned so much about putting your ego aside, and leaving room for other opportunities and other people’s insights. For that reason, I wouldn’t take nothing for the journey.             

This is an expanded version of an article that appears in the September 23, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.