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The O in Network

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In January 2009, OWN finally named a CEO: Christina Norman, a 46-year-old former MTV president under Judy McGrath. Norman, a strong personality who had worked for seventeen years developing commercially minded reality shows for VH1 and MTV, immediately cleaned house. Schwartz left the company in April, and Wass and Grasso were gone by September. OWN announced that Schwartz resigned, but a source says that she was fired right after she and her team presented their lineup to Oprah at her Santa Barbara home. The source says the presentation appeared to go well, but the next day Schwartz was asked to leave. “Norman’s ideas are obviously 180 degrees from what Robin and Maria were asked to do,” the source says. “Oprah wanted an aspirational, spiritual, self-help network, and that changed when Christina came in.” Under Norman, scripted shows, which cost far more than reality shows, were out of the question (an OWN source insists scripted programs were never a priority). And while Norman understood that idealism was an integral part of the Oprah brand, she also sought to strike a balance between Oprah’s mission and entertaining, profit-making television.

But the biggest problem remained the obvious one. Ever since the OWN deal was announced, Oprah had been coy about how much she would appear on the new channel and what she would do with The Oprah Winfrey Show. Zaslav, who had played it cool at first, now wanted as much of Oprah as he could get. The analogy he started using privately was that Discovery getting Oprah Winfrey without The Oprah Winfrey Show was like getting the NFL without the games. In November 2008—a full year before she announced she’d be ending her show—Zaslav had made a bombshell of a public comment on a conference call with reporters. After Oprah’s syndication deal expires, he said, “the expectation is that her show will go off … and she will come to OWN.” A source close to Zaslav now calls that statement “a verbal typo,” though he was applying new pressure on Oprah privately, too. As the deadline for Oprah’s syndication deal approached, the source says, “there was an opportunity to talk with her and say, ‘Let’s come up with a different vision of what this channel can be.’ We were there making a big case that coming to OWN would be best.”

Oprah insisted publicly that she would decide her show’s fate independently of OWN. But then her affiliates weighed in, suggesting that they didn’t want to pay as much for Oprah’s show if she did renew. “What I pay for Oprah is about triple what I pay for anything else,” one station executive said in one report. “So, it could be a blessing if she does leave. Even if the show replacing her loses half the audience, just the cost savings alone could make it beneficial.”

Motivated, perhaps, by all the talk that her brand was in decline, Oprah had spent September and October working hard to bring Oprah’s ratings back up, and it seemed to pay off. Whitney Houston, Mackenzie Phillips, and Sarah Palin all came to her couch and brought viewers with them. In the first week of the 2009–10 season, her numbers were up 30 percent compared with the same week a year earlier. But she reportedly canceled several scheduled phone calls, and even one face-to-face meeting, with CBS president Les Moonves about the future of her show. “Look, if I do it, it’s with you guys,” Oprah had told Moonves, according to one report.

On November 5, entertainment blogger Nikki Finke broke the news that Zaslav had demanded that Oprah “ ‘move it or lose it’—move her talk show to OWN, or risk losing the Oprah Winfrey Network altogether.” “Discovery has lost millions of dollars since [the OWN deal] was announced,” she quoted a source as saying. Harpo wouldn’t confirm the report, though Finke wrote later that CBS and Moonves were blindsided by it. Finally, on November 19, Oprah told her staff she was ending her show, according to Finke. Then she called Moonves. “I’m not bringing The Oprah Winfrey Show to cable,” she reportedly assured the network chief. “I’ll do something else with that channel.”

The next day, the greatest name in television announced she was letting her syndicated daytime talk show end in 2011, effectively staking her future on a blank slate of a 24-hour cable channel. Afterward, Oprah seemed almost relieved. “I would say there was a real peace about the fact that she was coming to a decision that, frankly, she probably had arrived at a year earlier,” Tim Bennett says. “I believe that when it came to trying to do everything, she edited her own life. She made some life choices.”


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