Behind Oprah’s big new TV venture

February 4, 2009, 10:55 PM UTC
Fortune

“You know I believe in signs.”

You probably don’t know that about Oprah Winfrey since you’re not sitting around watching Oprah at 4 p.m. each day. (Rather, you’re trying to keep your job, aren’t you?)

But the queen of media mentioned this to me when we were talking about Tom Freston, the former Viacom CEO whom Sumner Redstone fired in 2006 and Winfrey immediately went after. (Read “The Most Wanted Man on the Planet” for more about Winfrey’s relentless pursuit of Freston – from Burma to Hanoi to Montecito, California.)

As for those signs that Winfrey believes in, they indeed played a role in the genesis of her next big venture: the OWN cable-TV network, due to launch in at least 70 million homes in one year via a partnership with Discovery Communications . It was May of 2007, shortly after Winfrey met Freston, that Discovery CEO David Zaslav visited her in her Chicago office and pitched what he thought was a compelling idea: to translate her philosophy – which he knew to be “live your best life” – into a TV channel.

“Today, there’s MTV and CNN and Discovery and a few brands that will impact people in years ahead,” Zaslav said to Winfrey that day, asking her to think about having her own TV platform to extend her presence after she’s no longer physically around. Zaslav recalls Winfrey grabbing his hand, leading him to her desk, and pulling out a piece of paper. On it she had written a note to herself, years before, plotting her own TV network. OWN: the Oprah Winfrey Network. It was the same name he suggested.

Winfrey had first met Freston a few months before – tracking him down in Burma and then inviting him for breakfast (she cooked) at her Montecito home. Freston was exactly the person she wanted to run OWN – and Zaslav liked the idea because (another coincidence!) he had almost gone to work for Freston at Viacom, as his No. 2, before leaving NBC Universal to become Discovery CEO in late 2006.

Another “sign,” as Winfrey says, came last January, two days after she and Zaslav publicly announced the OWN venture. “I got a call from Joe Roth,” she says, referring to the Hollywood veteran who once ran Disney’s movie arm. “He said to me, ‘I heard about your announcement, and there’s one person you need: Tom Freston.'” Roth told Winfrey that Freston “shares your vision, has a soul, and has integrity.”

Freston certainly didn’t put Roth up to it. He wasn’t looking for a job and simply wanted to be free.

After a two-year chase, Winfrey finally convinced Freston to sign on as a consultant to OWN. He’s more than that, actually – a co-architect of the brand and the programming and also the team that Winfrey is building. (He helped lure new CEO Christina Norman, whom I wrote about last week.) Oprah still wants a bigger piece of Freston. Good luck, given his global inclinations. Right now, he is, as he told me via an e-mail last night, “up in the mountains of Bali (Ubud)…Forgot it was the rainy season…raining an inch an hour.”P.S. Click here to see Freston on video, talking about his globetrotting and his work with Oprah. And here to see Freston talking about getting fired from Viacom.