Oprah’s OWN moment: Stedman’s note inspired the dream

Jan 03, 2011

by Patricia Sellers

Oprah Winfrey arrived on cable this weekend at long last. And I do mean long.

When I interviewed Oprah in her Chicago office a few months ago, she pulled a piece of paper out of her desk drawer. It was a note, scrawled in pencil, that Stedman Graham, her boyfriend, wrote to her when they were on vacation together in April 1992. Oprah had never shared the note with the media, and she declined to let me share the full content with you. (Yes, I asked). But as we sat there and talked about the origin of OWN, she let me read the letter and scrawl my own notes. So, here is at least part of what Stedman Graham wrote to Oprah that important day nearly 19 years ago:

"How does Oprah position herself in the next decade? OWN. That's right. OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network....This is God's way and Oprah's vision..."

Granted, people like you and I don't plot media empires on our vacations. Then again, we are not Oprah. Stedman's idea inspired her, and at the bottom of that piece of paper, she wrote that the goal of OWN "will be to create mindful rather than mindless programming."

Then she sat on the idea for 15 years. It took another passionate persuader, Discovery Communication CEO David Zaslav, to come along in the spring of 2007 and offer Oprah the proper incentive to act on her dream.

In "Oprah's Next Act," my recent Fortune cover story, Oprah talks about agreeing to co-create a cable TV network with Zaslav ("I don't want your money," he told her. "I want you.") and then feeling so terrified of her commitment that she practically backed out of the venture.

But she didn't. And finally, we have OWN, which isn't as easy to find as The Oprah Winfrey Show, which will stay on broadcast TV until this coming September. (OWN, which replaced Discovery Health across the U.S., is Channel 115 on Time Warner Cable in Manhattan and Channel 219 in Los Angeles.) The first TV network built around one human being, it is the grandest experiment yet in the personalization of media and Oprah's biggest risk in her career.

She admits that. So, do you think Oprah will succeed?

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. FORTUNE may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.

Quotes delayed at least 15 minutes. Market data provided by Interactive Data. ETF and Mutual Fund data provided by Morningstar, Inc. Dow Jones Terms & Conditions: http://www.djindexes.com/mdsidx/html/tandc/indexestandcs.html. S&P Index data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Terms & Conditions. Powered and implemented by Interactive Data Managed Solutions