Why Oprah Decided to Start Her OWN Network
Mark your calendar! At noon on January 1, 2011, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network goes live with a cable channel unlike any you've ever seen, featuring a visionary lineup of original shows. Here, Oprah talks to O editor in chief Susan Casey about taking risks, overcoming fear, and her exhilarating new chapter.
Susan Casey: So why did you decide to start OWN?
Oprah Winfrey: My goal in life is to live out the truest expression of myself as a human being. We live in a culture that really only responds to that which is familiar, famous, wealthy—people pay attention to people who are known. I've always believed that that was what the fame was for, so that people would pay attention. For me, though, it's been equally important that once they're paying attention, you have something meaningful, worthwhile, and of substance to say to them—you're not just yakety-yakking. In the early '90s when I was doing the show, I wrote in my journal about creating a network for mindful television. Stedman and I were talking about the state of trash TV and what I was going to do, and he said, "Why don't you own your own network?" And I was like, "Well, how is that possible?" Because it seemed impossible at the time. But as I sat with the idea—own your own network—I thought of the letters OWN, standing for the Oprah Winfrey Network. And I'm always looking for signs, signals, and so I wrote that down in my journal that night, May 14, 1992.
Then in 1998 when Geraldine Laybourne and Marcy Carsey came to visit me with the idea for Oxygen, I thought, Oh, this is the network I was thinking about! Only I thought it was going to be called OWN [laughs]. But maybe I got my O's and my W's mixed up! Maybe it was an X instead! Literally, I thought that. Well, I guess this must be it, because how else am I going to have a network? Obviously, that did not work out, and what I learned from that experience is: Put your name on nothing that you cannot control. Because you need to maintain your voice in all things. That was the great lesson. The mistake I made with Oxygen was that, for me, it was an ego move.
SC: What was different about the concept for OWN? Why did that feel so right?
OW: In April 2007, David Zaslav, the head of Discovery, came to me holding an O magazine, talking about the fact that his wife had given it to him and that he wanted to create a channel based on living your best life, because he thought the magazine did such a great job of executing that idea. So I took him into my office and showed him what I'd written in my journal. And I felt instinctively like, Oh my God, so this is how it happens. I realized it was of divine order when he came to see me based upon what I had done in the magazine. He didn't say, "Let's create another Oprah show"; he said, "What you're doing is really perfect for a channel—how do we create a channel that helps people the same way your magazine does?" So I said, "Oh my goodness! This is a sign!"
SC: Well, we need it now more than ever. So much on television these days is unwatchable.
OW: It's just created to blur the senses. It feels like Halloween candy. Gobble it down and at the end you don't feel better—you're like, Why did I do that to myself? In recent years I started to feel that, Gee, television has lost its mind. There's no mindfulness there anymore. You used to be able to watch shows and come away with something—like with my favorite program growing up, The Andy Griffith Show.
SC: Or Wild Kingdom! I loved that.
OW: Or Wild Kingdom. You would watch it, and even if you didn't learn something, there would be a thoughtfulness about it. An interesting aspect—something that sort of opened you up a little bit, that brought a little piece of light into whatever it is you were doing. Bonanza, for goodness' sake! Any number of shows for a long, long, long time—television actually did that. And in recent years I started to notice it doesn't. Television doesn't make me feel good. There's nothing about it that makes me feel good. I literally do not have it on at any time in my personal space, be it in the office, be it in my makeup room. If I walk in and it's on, I will say, "Turn it off," unless it's something I need to know or need to hear. I just won't have it. I will not allow the mindless chattering of Halloween candy. I just won't allow it. If you wanted to drive me insane, that's what you would do. You would put me in a room where the television was never turned off.
SC: A lot of it is just mean and venal.
OW: Mean and mean-spirited and not coming from a good place—a lot of it. I think everything has an energetic field. There's a beautiful thing Jill Bolte Taylor wrote about in her book My Stroke of Insight. After she had the stroke and was in the hospital, she could sense energy. She could sense, when a nurse came into the room, whether the nurse was thinking about getting off early; she could sense from the way she opened the shades or didn't, or if she mindlessly put her food down on the tray. She could just sense energy. So she had a sign created that basically said "Please be responsible for the energy that you bring into this room." Which I now have outside my makeup door. "Please be responsible for the energy that you bring into this room." And that is how I look at this network: I take responsibility for the energy that I am bringing into the room. I feel responsible for the energy that I bring into the rooms of every single person who turns on this channel.
SC: That is such a big statement.
OW: Yeah, but that's where I am.
Photo: Ruven Afanador