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The O in Network


Photo Illustration by Darrow  

“I love it. Let’s do it,” Oprah said. Then they retired to her office, where she showed him a handwritten entry from a journal of hers from 1992. OWN, it read. The Oprah Winfrey Network. It was as if The Secret had worked. Oprah wanted her own cable channel, and the universe had brought it to her. In January 2008, Oprah announced that she was partnering with Discovery on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. “All the years of doing The Oprah Winfrey Show have led me to this very moment,” she said.

Then came the other shoe. Last fall, Oprah announced she would end The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011, after its 25th season. “Why walk away? Here is the real reason,” she said to viewers as she misted up. “I love this show. This show has been my life. And I love it enough to know when it’s time to say good-bye. Twenty-five years feels right in my bones and feels right in my spirit. It’s the perfect number. The exact right time.” It was plain to see she was tired of the daily grind and seeking a change. “I don’t know how I’m going to get through the year,” she had said as far back as 2001. “I’m sick of people sittin’ in chairs stating their problems. Then we roll the videotape … then we have our experts on the topic. … I’m in the ‘What’s next?’ phase of my career.” The show was part of her past. Her future, she told everyone around her, was OWN.

Getting Oprah without The Oprah Winfrey Show was like getting the NFL without the games.

But now, three years after her first meeting with David Zaslav, what that new phase will look like is still anything but clear. The new network’s debut has been moved back twice. Its original creative team has all been fired or left on their own. And its roster of programming remains, at least publicly, vaguely defined. While OWN is supposed to be the vehicle for Oprah’s midlife reinvention, no one can seem to figure out yet exactly what OWN is going to be. So far, the only thing everyone agrees would be a hit on OWN is something like the old Oprah Winfrey Show. Without that, the network appears destined to fall short of expectations. And while Zaslav and Discovery seem increasingly eager to coax Oprah into a greater on-air role, Oprah appears willing to consider anything except that.

Long before OWN came along, Oprah Winfrey had been restless. Born into a life of poverty and abuse, she was co-anchoring a local news show in Tennessee at 19 years old, and by the time she’d reached 35, she had become the most successful daytime-television personality in history. Onscreen, her signature mix of celebrity sit-downs, self-improvement (including her own), and, above all, empathy won her more than 12 million viewers at her program’s peak in 1992. Offscreen, she established herself as a global symbol of self-invention and success.

But unlike, say, Johnny Carson or David Letterman, Oprah never saw her TV show as her endgame. Even at the height of her success, she was thinking of other lives to lead. She produced prime-time specials and TV movies; she was nominated for an Oscar for The Color Purple; she became the most powerful woman in publishing with her book club; she directed her energies into other projects like Beloved, the 1998 film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel, which she produced and starred in. Even as she continued to dominate the ratings like no other daytime personality, her faith in The Oprah Winfrey Show seemed to waver; most of all, she was disgusted by having to compete with the Jerry Springers of her genre. “Coming off that wonderful film to be just interviewing more dysfunctional people was a letdown,” she said. When Beloved failed at the box office, she was right back where she started.

Her next attempt to branch out was Oxygen. In 1998, she put $20 million into the network, but “the network evolved away from her,” says Geoffrey Darby, a former Oxygen executive. Heartwarming shows she developed for the channel that fit her mission (Live Your Best Life) were jettisoned in favor of programs that seemed entirely ratings-driven and had nothing to do with her (Bad Girls Club, Oxygen’s answer to The Real World). Oprah eventually backed out, saying, “I feel I gave myself away too readily.”

She was determined not to make the same mistake with O: The Oprah Magazine. At some point before the launch in 2000, Oprah lost confidence in what was being produced and grabbed control. “The O that’s on the cover is more than my name,” she said. “It’s my life.”


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