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The O in Network

Can Oprah the channel succeed without Oprah the talk-show star?

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On a spring day in 2007, David Zaslav walked into an intimate, living-room-style conference room on the second floor of Harpo Studios in Chicago and sat down next to Oprah Winfrey. The 47-year-old television executive hadn’t met Oprah before, and although he’d spent his share of time in the presence of celebrities, he was struck by how life-size she seemed. As anyone who watches her show knows, Oprah’s great gift is the way she can be at once a star and Everywoman. She contains multitudes: There is empathetic Oprah (commiserating with abuse survivors, the parents of autistic children, or the entire nation of South Africa), indignant Oprah (seething at James Frey over fabricating his memoir), fun-loving Oprah (road-tripping across America with best friend Gayle King), news-making Oprah (Tom Cruise), tabloid Oprah (her weight is up, it’s down), mystical Oprah (The Secret and its Law of Attraction, suggesting you can get whatever you want if you just want it enough), and altruistic Oprah (Everybody gets a car!).

That day, Zaslav was talking with Oprah the businesswoman. She sat quietly, with her glasses perched at the end of her nose; she was in tire-kicking mode. She had done a fair amount of homework, Zaslav remembers. She knew a lot about Discovery. She knew a lot about me.

Six months earlier, Zaslav had left his job as one of Bob Wright’s deputies at NBC to become the CEO of Discovery Communications, putting him in charge of thirteen channels on the basic-cable dial, including TLC and Animal Planet. Oprah had kind words for Discovery; she had just watched Planet Earth, Discovery’s eleven-part documentary co-produced with the BBC, which she said she loved so much she would have liked to have narrated it. Still, a hit for Discovery was a show that drew 1 million viewers. Oprah, on a fair day, brought in 7 million. It would seem that Zaslav would have little to offer the most successful woman in the world. But he thought he had something that Oprah wanted.

What he had in mind, Zaslav told Oprah in his native New York accent, was an elegant transaction. With no money changing hands, Oprah would become an equal financial partner in Discovery Healtha chronically underperforming runt of the Discovery litter, heretofore famous for shows like Plastic Surgery: Before and After. What Discovery Health needed, he said, was a radical makeover. His plan, he told her, was a 24-hour Oprah channel.

Zaslav explained that Oprah could have free reign over an entirely new cable network without the hurdles of having to start a cable channel from scratch. She could reoutfit an existing channel, complete with a ready-made infrastructure and potential access to Discovery Health’s 75 million cable subscribers. He promised her complete creative controlunlike the deal she had at Oxygen, the women’s cable network that she’d invested in a few years earlier but later abandoned in frustration. Just by putting Oprah’s name on an existing cable channel, Zaslav was clearly suggesting, that channel could increase in value by a few billion dollars, making both sides a fortune before Oprah ever decided what would go on the air.

But as he went on, Zaslav didn’t focus on money. He talked, as a talk with Oprah Winfrey would need to, about vision. Discovery, he said, was about nurturing people’s curiosity, inspiring them to think outside their familiar worlds. Oprah, of course, was also about inspiration and self-improvement (Live your best life). He brought up certain episodes of her talk show and said they could form the basis for new series on the channel. He talked about her success with O: The Oprah Magazine and her knack for nurturing new talent like Rachael Ray, Suze Orman, and doctors Phil and Oz, all of whom have a similar passion for helping people lead richer lives. He understood that the mission mattered most to Oprah. She doesn’t get pushed around by trying to make more money or trying to reach more people, Zaslav recalls. What he didn’t talk about was The Oprah Winfrey Show itself. Every few years, Oprah would publicly make noises about retiring from her talk show, but nothing would come of it. If Zaslav had designs on the crown jewel of the Oprah empire, he didn’t let on, not yet anyway. Any talk of moving the show to the new channel could come later. For now, it was enough simply to start a relationship with Oprah.

To Oprah, the pitch represented more than a business proposition. It was a chance to start a new phase of her life, a second act she’d been hoping to begin for years. I have to say, he nailed it, says Tim Bennett, the longtime president of Harpo Productions, Oprah’s company, and one of her senior advisers. He had her at hello.


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