LOS ANGELES — On a beautiful September afternoon in California, Oprah Winfrey is prepared to do a double hula hoop dance in the offices of her Oprah Winfrey Network. The reason: OWN had just posted its best ratings week ever, more than a month after the network reported positive cash-flow growth for the first time since its launch.
The sun shone brightly outside of Winfrey’s offices, a far cry from the cloud that hung over the network’s first 15 months of operations. Born in January 2011 from a partnership betweeen Winfrey’s Harpo Studios and Discovery Communications, the network was projected as a no-miss proposition. With Winfrey approaching the twilight of her astonishing 25-year run as host of the syndicated Oprah Winfrey Show, OWN was to be her triumphant transition from queen of daytime to empress of cable television.
OWN’s 2013 ratings success — the network’s record 524,000 third-quarter primetime audience was up an impressive 60% compared to the same period last year — is in sharp contrast to headlines that followed the network’s slow ratings growth in its initial year. Back then, OWN often failed to draw more viewers than the network it replaced, Discovery Health Channel.
The network struggled (a word she came to detest) early. And it suffered through what Winfrey herself termed as “painful” company layoffs, a fired CEO (Christina Norman) and the cancellation of high-profile shows like The Rosie Show. The network was also burning through the more than $500 million investment by partner Discovery.
Through all the negative and often vitriolic headlines, Winfrey and OWN always had one staunch supporter: Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav, the architect of the deal that brought Oprah into Discovery’s orbit. He dispelled false rumors that Discovery would pull its support from the ambitious startup and remained bullish on OWN from Day One. In 2012, Discovery dispatched two of its own executives — Rita Mullin, a longtime Discovery programmer, to help shore up OWN’s schedule and Neal Kirsch, Discovery Networks U.S.’s chief financial officer, to handle financials — in an effort to help Winfrey right the ship.
With Discovery firmly in its corner, OWN in July 2011 decided to make a change at the top and name a new CEO: Winfrey herself. She also brought the presidents of her Harpo Studios, Erik Logan and Sheri Salata, in as OWN co-presidents. Soon after, the network’s original shows — including reality series Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s and Iyanla: Fix My Life — began to resonate, particularly with female and African-American viewers. But Winfrey fans and industry observers still clamored for more Oprah on-screen, and Winfrey delivered. Through high-profile interviews with the family of late singer Whitney Houston, R&B singer Rihanna and disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong among others, Winfrey delivered record-breaking viewers for OWN.
Never one to relax, Winfrey a year ago struck gold by signing friend and prolific producer Tyler Perry to a multiseries deal. Perry’s first series, The Haves and The Have Nots, drew a network series record 1.8 million viewers this past summer, with its Sept. 3 finale drawing a network series record 2.6 million viewers. Two other Perry series, Love Thy Neighbor and For Better or Worse, have also drawn audiences well above the network’s primetime average.
Winfrey is still writing OWN’s cable story, but she’s closed the book on the network’s initial growing pains. Winfrey, Logan and Salata spoke with Multichannel News editor in chief Mark Robichaux and programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the journey through OWN’s development. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: We picked a good week to come — this is your best ratings week ever.
Oprah Winfrey: This is a hula moment. Best week ever! This is a two hulahoop moment!
MCN: Have you done a double?
Winfrey: I was going to do a double if The Butler [the theatrical film in which Winfrey is starring] made it for the fourth week. I saved the single. But a double, it’s worth … considering where we’ve come from, I think a double hula-hoop moment is [appropriate].
MCN: Given everything that you’ve gone through, how does that feel?
Winfrey: It feels almost redemptive. It’s interesting, all of my life I’ve been one of those people who talked about what happens when times get difficult and I did a speech at Wellesley when [longtime partner] Stedman [Graham]’s daughter graduated in 1997. And one of the things I talked about is, there’s no such thing as failure. Failure is just God, the universe, showing you that you need to move in another direction.
I literally pulled out that speech. Eighteen months ago, I had that speech in front of me. I go, “Now what was this that I said about failure? OK, so God, which direction are you telling me I need to go in?” So it feels like, wow, all the things that I have truly believed in and talked about, I get to actually live it.
And when you go to the space where you have tasted what it feels like to not be on top of the world … because for 25 years I was, and that’s a very good feeling.
So it just was a different process to start over from scratch and begin again to create, from the bottom, a different kind of television experience for the audience. It feels really good. It feels like we are on the right track. It feels like having the best week ever.
MCN: There were high expectations when you launched — did you feel like OWN had extra scrutiny over ratings?
Sheri Salata: It was brutal.
Erik Logan: Oprah can do one thing and it’s amplified. We laid off a certain number of people, like 30% of the workforce, but the raw numbers were like in the 20s. Two or three weeks later, Hewlett-Packard lays off like 20,000 people. You’d see a little blip in the media.
Winfrey: It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because I am from the school of giving my employees trips around the world. So I am the opposite of laying people off . That was a killer for me. It still is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in this entire process. Certainly the schadenfreude wasn’t pleasant, but the entire process I was thinking about when you have to go in a room and say it’s not going to work out — not because of you — but because if we don’t right-size this company, we’re not going to have a company. Interestingly enough, I think most people actually understood that.
MCN: What were your biggest mistakes, and what were the steps that you took to correct them?
Salata: I think there was an underestimation.
Logan: Right, that’s the biggest one.
Winfrey: Also an underestimation of the audience. I wouldn’t have thought it would’ve been possible to make this mistake again, but I recovered so readily 24 years earlier after ending the show. King World had the show on at 9 a.m. every place in the country, we were sold at 9 o’clock. And then they decided, after we were doing so well the first season, that they were going flip the times to the afternoon to lead into the news, to move into the money spot because nobody expected it to do as well as it did.
So I expected, because they told me to expect it, that the audience is just going to follow you to 4 o’clock. You don’t have to worry about it. Well, that was not true. That audience had things to do, they had their kids to pick up from school, they were going to work, they were working the second shift, they were doing other things. We had to build an entire audience at 4 p.m.
It never even occurred to me — and I think also to our partners — that the audience that was watching the Oprah Winfrey Show wouldn’t just jump over [to OWN]. We just thought, “OK, they’re just going to jump over.” … But what are they jumping to?
First of all, we’ve had to create another audience, the cable audience. My Twitter feed was filled for months with people like, “Now you want us to pay, Oprah? I can’t afford it. I’m on a fixed income.”
It was a different thing. So I just assumed everybody had cable and knew where to find me. And then it was, where do I find you? You’re not a part of my regular cable package. I didn’t know what a cable package was.
MCN: So you started a little early, underestimated the audience. What about programming? Did you feel like you had the right shows on?
Winfrey: No! We’re now trying to figure that out. Apparently the audience wanted some of me, and I wasn’t available to have a presence on the network so there would be a reason for people to come. That’s a central mistake that we made. People were watching the Oprah show because of Oprah and then you want them to turn to watch the channel —
Salata: You cannot build programming in two weeks. We used to do the Oprah show [and] Oprah would say let’s do this, OK, we’re going to get it on Thursday, let’s go! This process takes months. This programming is built year upon year upon year. I mean an expectation that was going to be all tied up in a bow in about 90 days is just …
Winfrey: Yeah, that’s the other thing. That was a big lesson. We’re just getting shows on the air now that I was discussing a year and a half ago.
Logan: It’s the whole development process.
Salata: It’s a different rhythm.
And there are a few episodes, does the audience respond? Hmm, not so much? OK, let’s try this then. It’s like you’re standing in front of a stove and a pinch of pepper and a little cayenne, oops, not that much cayenne. It’s a real art. It’s a real art.
Winfrey: And that comes with understanding your audience, and we thought we understood them. Listen, I know those Oprah show people, those were my people. I knew them. But I created a different audience, so now you have to start to understand who is this audience, who are they? You literally started from scratch building another audience.
Even the Oprah library wasn’t working, and here’s my theory about the reason why the Oprah library didn’t work in the format that we were using it … First of all, huge mistake to start with the final year of the Oprah show running as the library because more people watched that than any other year since 1995. So that didn’t work. And I finally said to the team, I said guys, this is what I am feeling in the zeitgeist. I feel that we said goodbye so thoroughly and so well that people really took us seriously.
The Oprah show said goodbye. We told them 18 months ahead that we were going to say goodbye, then we spent a year saying goodbye, then we did the final wave goodbye. Then don’t go putting your library on every week, three weeks afterwards. [Laughter.] Saying hello! We’re back! We didn’t really go away!
Logan: Job one was branding. And I think that was the first thing we did.
Salata: Oprah did [Oprah’s] Lifeclass.
Winfrey: We did Lifeclass and then I started Next Chapter. And I started out with the idea that Next Chapter was really going to be my next chapter. I was going to travel the world. I actually did a promo: “I will show you the world! I’m going to show you the pyramids, I’m going to the Great Wall of China, I’m going to India!”
All the things I thought were interesting, that I thought would be interesting for the audience, and the audience quickly let me know they didn’t care. … They really wanted to see Lady Gaga. I went, OK, let’s take a look at this. What does that mean?
MCN: When the negative analysts’ reports and stories came out a year or two ago, [Discovery Communications CEO] David Zaslav had a great quote: “Everybody should relax.” How much did you lean on Discovery? How much has it helped to be in that family?
Logan: First, the prior administration at the network wasn’t utilizing the two greatest resources they had. They had Harpo Studios in Chicago, which had been the life heartbeat of the Oprah Winfrey Show for 25 years and … the flip side was, candidly, we’re not leaning into the expertise of Discovery.
What became really apparent to the three of us is we [could] sit down with David’s leadership from the Discovery side, our leadership from the brand side, and just kind of say, OK, where do we need to go?
Salata: We needed to super-charge our learning.
Logan: So we went to cable school. Still to this day, they are enormously helpful in that. The marriage of the leadership of Oprah, the brand knowledge and the knowledge and the expertise that Discovery has had in [cable] was a real important part of the recipe that helped us. We had no doubt about that, which is why David probably gave that confidence line of, “relax,” because it was going to happen. But it wouldn’t have happened, I don’t think, if we hadn’t had that support and that infrastructure from Discovery.
Winfrey: Discovery has been incredible. I mean in the height of the schadenfreude, everybody was saying Discovery was going drop me, they were going to cut the funding … I literally called David one Saturday and asked, “Is this true? [Laughter.] Is there any truth to all the things I’ve been hearing? Are you going to be dropping me too?”
And he said, “No, we’re in for the long run.” What is his thing? “We’re not going to rearview-mirror it. If we make a mistake, we make the mistake together.” So he has been incredible in that way.
Logan: Oh, he’s been great.
MCN: How did you deal with the negative comments?
Winfrey: Every time I picked up an article, the world “struggle” used to make me cringe. So I stopped reading things and literally was like, “OK, we’ll know things have turned around when nobody uses the word.”
As I’ve said over the years, I’m not defined by what other people think. When you are constantly bombarded with, “this is what other people think,” you start to take on that dialogue as your own — “we’re struggling, we’re struggling, we’re struggling” — and you can’t move forward.
And it wasn’t until I started to think differently about it, that it’s not a struggle. I had to really read my own speeches. I am not kidding! I went back to my journals, things that I’d written and things that I’ve said and speeches that I’ve done and asked myself, “Did you really believe that or were those just some nice, pretty words you were using?”
And I decided one day that I was going to practice what I preached and what I always preach is gratitude changes everything. If you want to change your personal vibration, trust me … You’re feeling down, you’re feeling like everything is going wrong and everything is against you, you have to stop and get still because the voices of the world will kill you and drown out what is truly your own inner voice, the voice of God, your intuition, your instinct, you lose it when you’re listening to everybody else.
I sat down one day and looked at all the things I was grateful for. I literally shifted the paradigm, thought about all those things. First of all, you’re feeling bad because you have a network with your name on it to turn around.
Logan: Who gets to do this?
Winfrey: Yeah, and who gets to do this?
Logan: That was really what we started saying. Winfrey: Actually it was Sheri who said that for the first time. A network with your name on it. Sheri and Erik and Stedman. Stedman was like steadfast in my ear, like, you have a network and you’re complaining? But this is what happens in business. I mean he’s a businessman.
He goes, it’s a privilege to be able to figure it out and figure out how you can build the business. And he’s going, “You’ve got a partner who’s supporting you in Discovery? You need to turn that thing around.” So, gratitude.
MCN: Looking at the programming at the time, what was the biggest decision that you had to make — more reality, more scripted? How did you determine what was going to work for the audiences you were trying to reach?
Logan: We had a lot of ideas of how we wanted to get into it. There was one show that was here at the same time that Oprah went on with, Lifeclass. Oprah went on [in primetime] and did Lifeclass five nights a week. She basically said, “I’m going to put this on my back right here and now and I’m going to tell you exactly the intention of the network,” and it was so great. And it was like, bam, there was that.
But there was a show that was here, Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s. It was early October. And it was a show that I think did a 0.4, which at the time was four times anything else we’d ever been doing. [Laughter.]
Winfrey: The reason why I loved Sweetie Pie’s and chose it is because I thought, “Where do you have an African- American family who show a sense of love and respect for each other, who are trying to run a business, where people are articulate and for the most part not cursing each other out?” Getting their piece of the American dream. I thought that that would be relatable and wanted other people to see and experience that, very much in the same way that I chose to do The Butler, because I loved the idea of the story of the family, that people get to see black people in a way that you normally don’t see, because nobody is showing you that.
Logan: And I think you just fast-forward to today. [Sweetie Pie’s] premiered last Saturday night; it was one of the highest numbers in the history of the series.
MCN: Reality today is negative, negative, negative and the more conflict …
Winfrey: It’s why also people are coming to us. I don’t want to interrupt you, but people are coming to us.
We’re not about trying to cause tension and conflict in a way that isn’t truthful and isn’t real.
MCN: Why did you feel that you could continue to stick with that and be successful? It goes against the grain of what’s on TV.
Winfrey: My whole life is ruled by intention. It is my mantra, it is my creed that I don’t do anything without an intention. There has to be a clear motivating reason for me to do something, and if it doesn’t have that, then it has no value for me.
So if you tell me what your intention is I am in the best seat to make that happen because I control the microphone. And so I want, at the end of the interview, for you to be able to fulfill whatever it is you came here to talk to me about. I did that with Lindsay Lohan, I did that with Whitney Houston, I did that with Lance Armstrong — I did that with Tom Cruise.
First time I ever did it was for a woman. I got an Emmy for that show — it was the first Emmy I got — [for] a woman who had lost her 16-year-old daughter to abuse from a boyfriend. She’s in the green room and she was willing to come on and talk about it. I went in and said, “At the end of this hour, what do you want? Tell me what your intention is for being here.” And she said, “I want people to know that my daughter’s life was bigger than the day she died.”
It changed everything for me, doing that. She wouldn’t have had the moment to be able to express what her daughter’s life meant, not just the murder, not just the boyfriend. But what her daughter’s life meant. So that turned it around for me.
So to make a long story short, I do that for everything, for every show, for every thing that’s brought to me — what is our intention?
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] 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. I could tell that somebody’s story in Chicago was the same feeling that somebody in Rhode Island and Maine and Memphis … I just felt that connection was real and the same, that it was a shared connection and that it wasn’t about what region it was in, it was in the region of your heart space.
MCN: So who’s on your short list of people to interview?
Winfrey: It’s just a pipe dream but I’d love to sit down with O.J. [Simpson] and let’s have a real talk.
I would also love to do [Jerry] Sandusky [who was convicted in the Penn State football sex-abuse scandal]. I’d also like to talk to his wife. I’d like to do [financier convicted of fraud Bernie] Madoff and an audience of people who lost money. I’d like to do Madoff and Elie Wiesel, whose entire foundation was wiped out.
MCN: Tyler Perry. How did that deal happen?
Winfrey: He was one of the people who was a comforting friend to me during this entire process. One day I was talking to Tyler Perry and he said, “You ought to let me write something for you.” I said, “But aren’t you doing your own network? How are you going to write something for me? You’re doing your own network.” He goes, “Yeah, but I’ll write something for you. Like a script, see if you like it.” That’s how it started.
Logan: And then it just became a bigger idea.
Winfrey: You’re going to come join my network? I went “OK, hallelujah.”
Logan: I wasn’t trying to get too excited, I was like it could be helpful, it could be helpful, positive …
Winfrey: We were doing the deal while I was in my hotel room in New Orleans [for The Butler] going, “I’ve got to get to set, I’ve got to get to set!” [Laughter.]
Logan: Then the opportunity came for us to acquire For Better or for Worse. And that one had just started ending its cycle on TBS and so we quickly made a deal to not only do originals, but also acquire the library.
MCN: Your success has also been among African-American viewers. When you initially launched, you didn’t necessarily want to focus on one specific demo.
Winfrey: I’ve never focused on anything other than what I believed would bring the viewers and would connect to the viewers. The fact that the African-American audience found us first — they had the cable channels. We don’t try to go after anybody, ever.
Logan: Here’s the thing, I mean to build from her point, it goes back to that first time when Sweetie Pie’s went on the air, they showed up.
Winfrey: People watched it. I don’t want to waste your time. And I think we are really strict on getting our production teams to think about what is the value you ultimately want to give to the viewer. Because we are in the business of offering value to our customers and our customers are our viewers.
MCN: You’re one of the top social-media networkers because you tweet like mad. How long have you been tweeting?
Winfrey: Since 2009. I can feel by the feed, how fast the feed is moving. You’re scrolling up, scrolling up and you can’t even take them all in? You can tell it’s going to be a good number.
Salata: We take it seriously.
Winfrey: I take it very seriously. And if you’re trending, sometimes trending before the show even starts, I mean we’ve done that with Super Soul Sunday. People are talking about it as they get up Sunday morning before it even comes on, and that’s the most exciting.
MCN: Are you better off having gone through this trial by fire?
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.”
And he said, “You’re going to have to use the word ‘mother-----r’ a couple of times. You’re going to have to do that. … And right now you need to harden up so you can say that a couple of times in a couple of different ways to people to back ’em off. And in about three years, you’ll figure it out and you’ll find out where the audience is, who they are.”
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.]
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: If you check out the crystal ball and we’re looking at this network next year this time, what would it look like and what would change, what would be different?
Winfrey: More Super Soul Sunday!
Logan: I think it’s safe to say that we’ve found a rhythm for our audience and I think that we have a — great north star in terms of what’s connecting.
And so that’s the good news.