Over the phone, David Zaslav is getting a little testy. OWN’s launch has been postponed again, to January 2011. He’s spent the last three years insisting that Oprah really will be personally involved in the network, that it’s more than just a glorified name-licensing deal. But OWN’s reluctance to provide much by way of specifics about Oprah’s role has created the assumption that there’s a problem. “The unknown has people chattering,” he says, insisting that mystery surrounds OWN only because the network doesn’t want to reveal itself too early.
In the past few months, the network has released a few programming details. The working roster seems to tap familiar Oprah themes—self-help, personal empowerment, contemporary issues, spirituality, and philanthropy—and involve a number of her more famous friends. There is a one-hour live talk show for Gayle King, and other shows for Suze Orman, home-organization guru Peter Walsh, and the sex therapist Laura Berman. Ashton Kutcher has a show, too, in which a celebrity and a friend will go on an adventure he or she has always dreamed of taking together. Another, Inside: Lisa Ling Investigates, promised newsmagazine-style pieces from the former View panelist who had already been doing a similar segment for Oprah’s talk show. There are also reality shows: Kidnapped, a tearjerker British import in which kids abduct their workaholic parents; Miracle Detectives, a real-life X-Files-ish show that nods at Oprah’s fondness for spirituality; Sentenced, about a women’s prison in Indiana; and Search, about a woman who finds long-lost family members and friends. OWN plans to showcase selected documentary films, in the style of Oprah’s Book Club. They’ve also purchased the TV broadcast rights to Precious. They have visions of activism too—mobilizing viewers for charity efforts for, say, earthquake relief in Haiti. As a whole, the lineup seems to reflect a mix of the original OWN team’s vision and Norman’s.
And Oprah herself? OWN insists that viewers don’t need or expect to see her every minute of the day, but not everyone agrees. Brad Adgate, the research director for Horizon Media, the largest independent ad-buying agency in the country, attended a presentation OWN made to his firm last week. The event was apparently meant to show “that Oprah’s fingerprints are going to be all over this network,” he says. “They had clips of her talking.” He learned about a few more inspirationally minded shows, like My Own Tribute, in which real people get to salute important people in their lives, and The Swell, which charts how a simple idea can catch fire and become bigger than expected. Still, he adds, “It’s one thing to have Oprah’s name on the network, it’s another thing to have her. If she migrates to cable with a similar type of show, knowing the guests she can get, you can build a network around her. I think it’s more important than her name. You have to see her onscreen, presumably with some sort of talk show, because that’s what she’s good at.” Not having a show like that, Adgate says, “could cost them millions in advertising revenue and cable-carrier fees. They need something unique if they’re going to be a destination network. They have to create a franchise show. They have to brand themselves. They have to give people some compelling reason to come to this channel every day.”
Earlier this year, Christina Norman appeared to be scrambling to assure ad buyers that OWN really is an Oprah channel. She announced Master Class, profile pieces about “the most extraordinary people of our time” selected by Oprah herself (without, necessarily, Oprah herself being onscreen). There is also Behind the Scenes: Oprah’s 25th Season, a weekly chronicle of Oprah’s long good-bye from broadcast television. (That move is reminiscent of Oxygen, which ran Oprah After the Show, a program that aired scraps from the table of the original Oprah.) The most Norman could tell a trade publication about Oprah’s role on OWN earlier this month was, “Clearly, the beauty of having your own network is that it can be the place where her next big idea is going to be seen. We’re working with her now on what that is, what the format will be, what she does and doesn’t want to do, what she hasn’t done before and how she can she really have a big presence on the network.”
The only one who really knows what Oprah will do, of course, is Oprah. Discovery, meanwhile, is hoping that despite all her talk, Oprah won’t be able to say good-bye to her old self—that after all the soul-searching and longing for her own best new life, she’ll come around to the idea that’s been clear, if carefully tiptoed around, all along: that however uncomfortable she is with the notion, being on television every day is what she’s best at and what people want from her. “Oprah’s going to have more than one show,” a source close to Discovery insists. “She’s going to be all over it. Oprah has been nourishing an audience for 25 years. These people don’t retire. It’s like Barbara Walters. It’s who she is.”
But Oprah announced to all the world in the fall that she doesn’t want to do a daily show anymore. She’s maintained that position ever since—to Les Moonves reportedly, to Discovery, and to OWN—and there’s no sign that she might change her mind. That leaves David Zaslav selling the only thing he’s got for the time being—the Oprah name. “I’ll tell you what I know for sure,” he says. “Oprah is fully engaged. There is no half-gear with her. She’s committed to making The Oprah Winfrey Show fantastic until the very last show, and she’s been giving us a ton of energy and creativity. She has boundless energy.”
He laughs. “You watch her schedule and it’s, ‘Oprah, where are you now?’ ” Then he pauses, catching himself.
“She’s fun to be with,” he says with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm. “We’re having a great time.”