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The O in Network

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But within months, the school imploded in the worst possible way. That fall, a dorm matron was accused of abusing six students—trying to kiss a 13-year-old, trying to fondle her breasts and getting the child to fondle her breasts; asking two girls to become lesbians and one to kiss her as she would a boyfriend; calling another girl a whore. What hurt most, perhaps, was that all this had allegedly happened over four months and the whole time, the children had apparently been putting on a happy face during Oprah’s visits. Oprah flew to the school, met with the girls and their families, and begged their forgiveness. She gave each of them her personal phone number and e-mail address in case anything else happened to them. She fired the headmistress, whom she had handpicked and brought over from the U.S. “This has been one of the most devastating, if not the most devastating experience of my life,” she said. In the same breath, though, she was defiant. “It has shaken me to my core. But at the core of me is a spiritual foundation and a belief that all things happen for a reason, and that no matter the devastation, this too shall pass.”

The Oprah Winfrey Show, meanwhile, had been steadily bleeding audience. The show’s viewership had actually peaked in the 1991–92 season with an average of 12.6 million viewers per episode. Its recent viewership had topped out at 9 million in 2005. Since then, that figure had dropped by double-digit percentages each year. Oprah was still No. 1 by far in daytime, but all syndicated television shows were losing viewers; there were too many channels now to guarantee her large audience would last. With her syndication set to expire in 2011, Oprah now was facing an unhappy choice: Stay and settle into a long, slow decline or quit and risk losing the source of her power and identity.

The decision gnawed at her. By the beginning of 2007, it even started to appear to affect her health. “At first I was unable to sleep for days,” she would recall later, in an essay for O. “My legs started swelling. My weight started creeping up, first 5 pounds, then 10 pounds. I was lethargic and irritable … I began having rushing heart palpitations every time I worked out … I felt as if I didn’t know my own body anymore.” Her weight, which fluctuated famously, would eventually reach 200 pounds for the first time since her fitness epiphany years earlier. Everyone around her, a source says, sensed she was terribly unhappy. She would later learn that all these symptoms were the result of a hypoactive thyroid, triggered, she suggested, by stress.

“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.”

“Many days I didn’t feel like going to work,” she wrote, “but sick days aren’t an option when more than 300 audience members have bought plane tickets and arranged babysitters so they could come to a taping.”

It’s one thing to put Oprah’s name on a network. It’s another thing to figure out how to make it work. The speed with which Oprah and Zaslav did the OWN deal may itself have been a danger sign. Oprah being Oprah, she can make projects happen and quickly. The downside is that those projects may not always be carefully thought through. For some time, it wasn’t clear how much time Oprah would devote to the new network, who would staff it, or even where it would be located (Oprah and Discovery eventually chose Los Angeles). It took a year just to find a CEO to run OWN. Oprah’s first choice had been Tom Freston. But the former Viacom executive who helped develop MTV wasn’t willing to sign on full time, just to consult. He helped line up other candidates for the job, according to reports, like History Channel’s Nancy Dubuc and MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath. But neither of them went for it, either. There was a perception that working for Oprah meant doing things her way or being shown the door.

In the spring of 2008, OWN blew its initial launch deadline, postponing its debut until sometime in 2010. That summer, under pressure to get the network moving, Oprah and Discovery hired a president to start developing shows: Robin Schwartz, who had overseen scripted-television hits like Malcolm in the Middle and The Bernie Mac Show. Schwartz hired two other executives who, like her, had backgrounds in scripted television: Maria Grasso, who helped create Everwood, One Tree Hill, and Army Wives, and Nina Wass, who developed shows for Touchstone–ABC Studios. A source familiar with that team’s efforts says their original plan involved a mix of scripted shows and reality programs with an idealistic bent. The team seemed to be following the lead of a so-called “mission group” that Oprah had formed shortly after the OWN deal was announced. The goals that group outlined for OWN were to make people look outside themselves and help improve the world. Oprah, says a source familiar with the working group, “didn’t want to do anything that had already been done.”


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