Oprah chooses a CEO for OWN

January 29, 2009, 11:28 PM UTC

by Patricia Sellers

MTV’s former president, Christina Norman, is joining the most powerful woman in media to launch OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.

Winfrey’s CEO appointment, announced Thursday afternoon, caps a talent hunt that’s been going on quietly since May 2007 when Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav pitched Winfrey on the idea of her own cable-TV network. Winfrey liked the idea instantly–“it’s about living your best life,” she says about OWN. A 50-50 Harpo-Discovery joint venture, the network is supposed to launch early next year in at least 70 million homes.

Norman is a well-regarded media-industry veteran. She spent 17 years at MTV Networks, rising from freelance production coordinator to president of VH1 and then MTV in 2005. She quit last February, stunning colleagues and stirring rumors that she might be headed to Oprah’s new venture. But her meeting with Winfrey a couple of weeks later went poorly. Burned out and exhausted, “I certainly wasn’t in a position to represent myself well. I needed to bring my whole self, and I wasn’t there,” says Norman, 45, who had met Winfrey for the first time the previous December when they ran into one another in a hotel lobby in South Africa.

Norman was traveling with her husband, Charles Hunt, and their two daughters, now 17 and 12, and she stayed in vacation mode. So much so that she almost blew her chances with Winfrey because she was more interested in living her best life, so to speak, than landing a big new job. “I wanted to go to a beach, clean out a closet, pick up my kids from school, and show up for something on time,” she says.

So Winfrey considered other candidates. Her first choice was Tom Freston, the former Viacom CEO who built MTV and has been on the loose ever since Labor Day 2006, when chairman Sumner Redstone fired him. Winfrey called Freston, whom she had never met, out of the blue a few weeks after his dismissal–reaching him in Burma, of all places. After a meeting at her home in Montecito, California, she pursued him to come on board as CEO of Harpo, her media empire, or OWN, the new network.

Even as Freston resisted Winfrey’s overtures, he has been working behind the scenes to help develop the new business. He and Spencer Stuart recruiter Jim Citrin helped Oprah line up other candidates for the OWN CEO post, including History Channel boss Nancy Dubuc, an up-and-comer in the media industry, and MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath, who worked with Freston for more than two decades after MTV’s 1981 launch. McGrath was unwilling to move from New York to Los Angeles, where Oprah’s new network is based.

Norman says that the OWN opportunity gnawed at her through last year. But she really didn’t pop back into the picture until mid-November when Citrin, who is on the board of trustees of Vassar, offered to interview her daughter, Zoe, who was applying to college there. That day, Citrin recalls, Norman “had her sparkle back.” She was recharged. He mentioned to her that the  CEO position at OWN still hadn’t been filled.

“I definitely wanted this job,” she says. Last month, as Winfrey and Freston went into discussions with another candidates, onetime VH1 president John Sykes, Citrin checked back with Norman one more time. She jumped. Meeting with Winfrey last Friday in Chicago, she told Oprah that she had always wanted the job but she hadn’t been ready to give her full self until now. “You can’t fake the funk,'” Norman said to Winfrey.

Norman is joining media-industry veterans who subscribe to the Oprah ethic that a job is about more than clocking the hours. It’s part of a personal journey to fulfill a passion (and communicate that to an audience, of course). Winfrey’s other hires for OWN include president Robin Schwartz, who headed Regency Television and before that was VP of programming at Disney’s ABC Family. OWN’s chief marketing officer is Liz Dolan, who oversaw global marketing at Nike until 1997 and has since teamed with her four sisters to do an inspirational radio show, Satellite Sisters. The digital boss is Rob Tercek, who was at Mforma, a publisher of entertainment content for mobile phones, and previously at Sony and MTV. Digital, Winfrey says, is “the bigger vision” for OWN, so that role is critical.

As for Freston, who has been the stealthy convener of much of this talent, he signed on as a consultant to OWN last summer. Winfrey, who calls Freston “my business soul mate,” is still prodding him to step up to a bigger position. Freston says he will, though not full-time. Next week in Fortune and on Postcards, Freston talks for the first time about his life after Viacom. Stay tuned for more about Oprah and OWN as well.

Click here to read a Guest Post, “How to land a great job,” by Spencer Stuart’s Jim Citrin.