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 Health—a 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 control—unlike 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.”
“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.”
Oprah had never been much of a manager. At Harpo, anything not having to do with the creative side of the business often fell into disarray. The show’s costs ballooned at one point to $50 million a year (insane by most shows’ standards); Harpo suffered from a rash of staff departures; and an ex-employee lawsuit (since settled) claimed an atmosphere of “dishonesty and chaos.” Those closest to her say Oprah is warm and open—the ultimate girlfriend to other women. She’s also said to be generous, offering high salaries, trips to her homes in Santa Barbara and Fisher Island, just off South Beach, and shopping sprees and luxurious gifts. But she can also be distant and capricious. Other people generally deliver bad news, and her appraisal of employees is often based on her personal opinion of them. That can create a culture of turf battles and dysfunction. “Everyone undermines everybody else to get more access to Oprah,” Elizabeth Coady, a former senior associate producer who quit in the nineties, once said, “and I think she encourages it.” Another bitter former employee dubbed Oprah’s company “a narcissistic workplace.”
At O: The Oprah Magazine, Oprah had installed Gayle King as her representative. But she still made changes as she saw fit. By June 2000, the magazine’s original editor, Ellen Kunes, had resigned. “The problem is that Ellen Kunes does not really know me,” Oprah had said. She was replaced by Amy Gross, who was strong-willed but also understood Oprah and was able to successfully interpret her vision. “It’s my ship, but Oprah’s the North Star,” she said. The magazine has gone on to become one of the most successful launches in recent history.
By the time she turned 50 in 2004, Oprah and The Oprah Winfrey Show were traveling down some strange roads. The woman who once said, “One of my greatest assets is knowing I’m no different than the viewer” was now devoting episodes of her show to past-life regression and reincarnation therapy and telling audiences she had had many lives. She indulged in New Age attempts to beat back aging (like the Thermage one-hour face-lift, which proved dangerous to many of its practitioners) and relieve stress (she told her viewers she wore a watch that emits a signal to block electromagnetic rays). She took some bizarre stabs at spirituality, like The Secret. She had Jenny McCarthy on in the fall of 2007 to talk about how vaccines may cause autism and how her son was somehow “in recovery,” and never bothered delving deeply into the science behind McCarthy’s assertions (later, Oprah would announce a deal to develop a talk show for McCarthy, too). For every Mehmet Oz, the reputable heart surgeon whose show she agreed to launch, there was someone like Suzanne Somers, whose extreme synthetic hormone-replacement regimen was featured on an Oprah episode.
Oprah seemed edgy now, and anxious. Exploding at James Frey for a full hour in 2006 was, she’d later admit, a mistake. So was canceling the book club afterward, a decision she reversed a year later. Oprah talked openly about ending the show, but “I truly don’t know what to replace it with,” she said. “As soon as I do, I’m pullin’ those people from their chairs.”
Still, every few years, she would sign on for another year or two of syndication, getting paid more each time she renewed. It was hard to say no, not with the pulpit she had, the chance to do good—and the money, an estimated $275 million a year.
In 2007, Oprah stepped into the political fray for the first time in her career and endorsed Barack Obama for president—a move that many say may well have won him the election. Her hold on the culture seemed stronger than ever. Tim Bennett says she was ecstatic. But the endorsement also cost her. Oprah’s Republican fans felt alienated, Hillary Clinton supporters felt outright betrayed, and still others were offended by being preached to about politics by a billionaire entertainer. A Gallup poll released in October 2007, months after she endorsed Obama, found that her favorable rating dropped by eight percentage points and her unfavorable rating increased by nine. “You saw people, her fans, accusing her of being a racist,” says Janice Peck, a media-studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of The Age of Oprah. Her five-year run as the favorite TV personality in a January Harris online poll also came to an end. The new winner: Ellen DeGeneres.
That same year, Oprah founded a boarding school in South Africa, achieving a longtime dream and bringing her closer to the ideal established by her friend and mentor, Nelson Mandela. But from the start, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls faced accusations of noblesse oblige. Pouring $40 million into the school, she handpicked the china, the linens, the pleated-skirt uniforms, the fabrics (“the sort I’d like in my own home”), while critics wondered if the money might be better spent. “These girls deserve to be surrounded by beauty, and beauty does inspire,” she responded. Gayle King remarked that the school was Oprah’s shot at motherhood. There was a distinct air of penance to the project, too, as if she were renouncing a life of materialism. “This is what the show is for, what the fame and notoriety is for,” she said. “Not just for me to make money to buy Jimmy Choo shoes.”
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.”
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.”
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.”