Oprah’s BFF


Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav spoke with Multichannel News editor in chief Mark Robichaux about how he came up with the idea to approach Oprah Winfrey about forming a network, and about OWN’s turnaround from a Discovery perspective.

MCN: How did you get the idea for OWN?

David Zaslav: We had a very unusual asset with Discovery Health. It was in 80 million homes, but it had no sub fee and it wasn’t working as a programming niche. It couldn’t find an audience that was meaningful. It was almost like a stool with only two legs. So the question was, how do we fill this out? We had a lot of strategic discussions about ideas.

And one day, I was just reading through my wife Pam’s Oprah magazine and it just occurred to me: Forget about all that analysis. This is it! This is an incredibly powerful brand. It doesn’t stand just for Oprah, it stands for a lifestyle and a way of life.

My wife loves the magazine. And, in fact, she had stick ’ems in it. I’ve never seen her put a stick ‘em in a magazine. So it was entertaining, but it was also nourishing. I said to Pam, this could be that channel. Oprah: Live your best life. I thought, “There is nothing like this on cable. So this could play and this could play hard.”

And I said, “But the problem is, it’ll never happen. I didn’t even know Oprah.”

MCN: How did you meet?

DZ: She was represented by [Creative Artists Agency] and they set up a meeting and I went to Chicago.

I sat down with Oprah and I was about 10 minutes in, eye to eye, and she grabbed me by the hands and she said, “Come with me.” And she brought me into her office and she took out the bottom drawer of her desk, a page out of her diary from years before. And the page said, “Someday I’ll have my own network and it’ll be called OWN, Oprah Winfrey Network.”

Own your mission, own your challenges, OWN … and we literally shook hands that day.

MCN: How’s the ride been so far?

DZ: It’s been a great journey with her, we’ve learned a ton together. We ended up on a different summit than we thought when we started, but I think it’s true of every business. We had an idea of what it was going to be and we made a lot of mistakes.

Cable channels are about building a brand and finding an audience that loves your brand.

MCN: Did the slow start — and the subsequent scrutiny by the press and Wall Street — surprise you?

DZ: I was always confident that this channel would be successful. One is because the cable operators supported it. We had deals with virtually every operator at very high fees for long-term deals. They believed in Oprah.

So now our mission was to find an audience that we could nourish and what’s the right recipe? In the 30 years I’m in this business, it’s never come easy, and you’re often surprised. In the end, it’s the audience that tells you what you’re going to be, because they’re always right.

Fox News [Channel] took three years to find its voice. TLC took us three years. It was a No. 25, now a top-five network for women. Even the most successful networks take several years.

But the challenge was that we were being judged every day. And so it put pressure in the system, but in the end, I think it forced us to make some good decisions.

The faster you can get information on things that are going wrong, the quicker you can fix them. The best way to do that is no rearview mirror. No judgments. Lets get it on the table and then let’s not focus on why, let’s just focus on how to make it better.

And that’s what Oprah and I did, and we were in a lot of conference rooms on weekends, late at night, a lot of phone calls, but they were good calls. This isn’t working, what else can we do? This one is, why is that working? Let’s talk to the audience. So it’s been a good experience for both of us.

MCN: What was your diagnosis?

DZ: The first was this is the Oprah Winfrey Network, so let’s start with, “We need more Oprah Winfrey.” She’s got the juice, she has a great sense of culture, a great sense of what her audience loves, and she is probably the best on-air performer and communicator in the last 100 years, so we’ve got to get Oprah on the air and we need Oprah to pick the shows. That was the first thing that we did.

Then we spent a lot of time talking about [how] every time something doesn’t work, that’s a good thing, because the audience is telling us we don’t like that.

It’s only a bad thing if we do it again. If we learn from it, then it’s a good thing, because we’re getting closer to figuring out how to nourish that audience and have them fall in love with OWN so that OWN becomes one of their favorite channels.

Oprah and [co-presidents] Sheri [Salata] and Erik [Logan] have built OWN really now on two pillars: all women in America, which is a big piece of our schedule where we still have very broad appeal, evenly spread across all ethnicities in America, which is very similar to what the Oprah Winfrey Network is. And then we have some portion of the Oprah Winfrey Network where we really lean into the African-American audience that has raised their hand and said, “I love this network.”

And so they have found a great balance between those two and the result is now, OWN is a top 20 network in America for all women and it’s the No. 1 or 2 channel for African-American women and African Americans in general as a network. So they’ve got a lot of momentum.

Between Oprah.com and OWN, they’re building a very strong relationship with the audience.

We knew this would be successful but we really thought it would take two to three years. To be a top 20 network, and the top network for African-Americans, has all of us working that much harder and that much more excited.

MCN: How hard was it to continue to stand firm, both in financial support of OWN and to analysts?

DZ: It wasn’t hard because I always understood that nothing worthwhile comes easy in the cable business. The audience doesn’t come to you and stay unless you earn it. And it doesn’t matter who you are. And so I have been knocked down in this business a bunch of times. It was really hard to build Discovery and get momentum.

But Oprah was great. In the end, it brought us closer together, it brought our companies closer together. OWN is the best of Discovery and Harpo right now.

One thing about the cable business, when you find an audience and you get it going, it’s a hell of a business.