by Patricia Sellers
Now that Oprah Winfrey is talking about her life-changing moves–to cable from broadcast TV and to Los Angeles from Chicago–I have to say: I’m not surprised at all.
After all, Oprah, who says she’ll end her daytime show in September 2011, does things only one way: with her full self in the game.
What I know for sure (and she does too): Building a major cable network will take all of the most popular woman on TV.
When I spoke with Winfrey a year ago (on the afternoon of Election Day 2008, when she was flying high as Barack Obama was hours away from winning the Presidency), she told me about her plans to go into cable. We were talking because I was profiling Tom Freston, the former CEO of Viacom , whom she had chased around the world–literally–trying to lure the peripatetic corporate refugee to run Harpo, her media conglomerate.
Winfrey, 55, didn’t persuade Freston to become her CEO. But she did bring him on as a consultant to OWN, the cable network about empowerment and life purpose that she’s now in the throes of developing. “I believe in signs,” Winfrey told me that day, going on to explain how David Zaslav, the CEO of Discovery Communications , first lured her to think about moving from broadcast to cable. Visiting her at her Harpo office in Chicago in May 2007, Zaslav said to her: “Today, there’s MTV and CNN and Discovery and a few brands that will impact people in years ahead.”
Zaslav, a former NBC Universal executive who was aiming to build his own legacy at Discovery, asked Winfrey to think about owning her own TV platform as a way to extend her presence after she’s no longer here physically.
The “sign” Oprah saw? She grabbed Zaslav’s hand, led him to her desk, and pulled a piece of paper from her drawer. On the piece of paper, she had written a note to herself, years earlier, plotting her own TV network: OWN: the Oprah Winfrey Network. This was the same name as Zaslav was suggesting she call her new channel.
And so it is OWN–a Los-Angeles-based venture that’s been marked by repeated launch delays. In February, when I did the Freston story, the target date was early 2010; now it’s January 2011.
Developing a new major network is no easy task. But OWN is taking over the prime TV “real estate” of Discovery Health, which will put it in 70 million homes at its start. That’s a huge help. Still, it isn’t as big a plus as OWN’s No.1 asset: Oprah herself.