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 Oprah Winfrey
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.

SC: When you started comprehending the reality of that, what emotions did it bring up? Did you feel fear?

OW: I have never felt such fear in all my life. When it struck me that, Okay, this is what I'm really gonna do, I walked myself through the process of, Is this my ego that wants a network? Because ego can't create shows, and ego can't stay up late at night, and ego can't be giving up your Saturdays and your weekends....

SC: Ego doesn't roll up its sleeves.

OW: Ego doesn't roll up its sleeves. If you just want your name on a channel and you just want to look at a pretty logo, get yourself some stationery and call it a day! So I literally sat down with myself and went through my journals and the process of, Why are you doing it? Would you do it if your name wasn't on it, if you got no credit whatsoever for doing it, and nobody ever knew that you were involved with it? I lived with that for a while. And the answer was, yeah, I would still want to create that kind of programming—I would like for people to have that space to go to. A breathing space—where you knew that something would always be there to fill you. Then I went through how hard it was going to be; I went through, What else do you have to prove? What about all the things you wanted to do? You could learn a new language! You could go to Spain! You could go to a little village where nobody knew you. You could find a little cottage in France and bicycle with your baguettes in your little basket every day. I thought about that! I thought about building a boat and sailing around the world—I thought about that. I thought about going to my mountain in Maui and becoming an organic farmer—I thought about that. And Stedman and Bob [Greene] and Gayle—you know, that's my kitchen cabinet—all said to me: You'd be happy doing that for about two weeks. Stedman said, "I'd like to see you in a village, bicycling. That'd be fun about two times." Because I've never really had a long time off.

SC: In your entire working life?

OW: I have never had an extended vacation where I wasn't conscious of the clock always ticking. I have commitments and responsibilities, and that weighs very heavily on me. I've said this before, but there's a beautiful line in the movie Beloved when the slave master comes back to get Sethe, and she is explaining to Paul D that she had 28 days of freedom, and on the 29th day it was over. "Twenty-eight days of a free life.... I'd wake up in the morning and decide for myself what to do with the day." Imagine that. That's my favorite definition of freedom: I get to decide for myself what to do with the day. I often think what it would be like for that character if she would have lived those 28 days knowing it was gonna be over.

SC: In a sense, your free time has never really been free.

OW: I celebrate the fact that I'm in a position where I do have such responsibility, but on the other hand, I don't get to call in sick. I'm not allowed to say, "I don't feel like it today, and I'm not 100 percent." There's been many a day when I wasn't, but that's when you gotta give 110. So there's a part of me that thought about just relaxing and doing nothing after the show ended. Then a couple of times I would wake up in the middle of the night clutching my chest.

SC: Was that feeling anxiety about deciding to do OWN instead?

OW: Anxiety like, Oh my God, this is coming down the track. Oh my God. Literally. Capital OMG. What have I done? So much responsibility. Then I would talk myself down and say, Okay, what is that all about? There was an underlying instinct that this was a divine opportunity and I had to separate the opportunity from my fear of it. And then I had to get very clear about exactly what I was afraid of. I was afraid of failing; I was afraid of what the press would say. I was afraid it wouldn't be what The Oprah Winfrey Show has been, and has meant, for all these years. I was afraid I wouldn't be as successful. I was afraid that, you know, it just might not work. What if it doesn't work? What if I want meaningful television and other people really just want The Real Housewives of New Jersey? And then it dawned on me: Well, that doesn't matter. What is my intention? For anybody who is thinking about taking a risk, you have to always come back to: What are your fundamental principles, what are your fundamental beliefs about yourself and your reason for doing whatever? So I thought, Well, if it doesn't work, that still doesn't take away the reason I wanted to do it. I learned a huge lesson with Beloved, which was not successful at the box office but was a great life teacher for me. I went into a real depression after Beloved—a real depression.

SC: As a result of the experience being over, or as a result of how the film did?

OW: I just expected that many people were going to see the film, and then when they didn't, I was really depressed. I remember having a conversation with Gary Zukav—which is the only counseling I got for the depression—I remember saying, "I think I'm depressed about it. I feel so terrible." And he said, "Why? What was your intention?" I said, "Well, I wanted people to see the film and to know that even though slavery was horrible, people came out of slavery and were still able to love. That's why I wanted to do that movie." And he said, "I knew that. And I felt that. I felt that." And I said, "Well, I guess I wanted more than just you to feel it." [Laughs] "I really wanted millions of people to see that and feel that." He said, "Oh, so what you really wanted was to have a big box office." I said, "Yeah, that's what I really wanted." He said, "If you really wanted that, you would have created a different kind of film." And that is true. Because when we were asked to do certain things to the film in order to make it more palatable to viewers, I said, "I won't do that. I won't change the ending, I won't change the story line, I'm going to leave it because that's the way Toni Morrison wrote it, that's what the story is."

SC: You wouldn't want to do something just because it sells. That's not your way.

OW: Granted, it was not the best business decision. That's why I don't consider myself to be a businesswoman. I don't think of business first; I think about what is right for me, personally, first. Which means that sometimes things work and sometimes they don't. And with this network I would wake up like [gasps] and think, What in the world is that? I thought, Maybe this is about me facing the fear.

SC: Fear is a natural response. The question is, What do you do with it? It's an energy that's also a kind of fuel. You can decide to use it—but for a lot of people, it stops them at the threshold. Because it's so powerful.

OW: That's right. What I realized is that I've never been afraid before. Not with any decision I've ever made. Coming to Chicago—when everybody said "You're gonna fail. You can't beat Donahue. Why you gonna go to Chicago?"—that never bothered me because I never thought I was going to beat Donahue anyway. That wasn't the goal. I just knew it was time for me to move on from Baltimore, from that job. I thought, Well, okay, if that doesn't work out, I'll do something else. Now, when it did work out, this was a classic case where being famous and being successful puts you in a box, and you're trapped by that. Because now you've got to live up to what that fame and that success is. Because people say, "Well you did that, and now you oughta be able to do this." But I came to see that The Oprah Winfrey Show was the basis and the foundation for me to be able to create everything else. And everything else will have the energy that it's supposed to hold.

SC: Clinging to the show would have been another kind of fear.

OW: I was approached by all the syndication companies, saying, "We can get you another year, another two years," but that didn't feel like the right thing to do. That feels like I'm hanging on to the ropes in the end, punch-drunk, saying, "Don't knock me out! Let me just get two more years!" I don't want to be doing that. So the fear of not knowing, the "What next?" is a very challenging, soul-searching, deep, substantive provocation. And you know what? It's supposed to be. What I now realize is, it's supposed to be.

SC: Maybe the fear is just part of it, just as much as faith....

OW: Years ago Maya Angelou told me she was in some class, and the instructor told her to repeat, "God loves me." God loves me. Say it again: God loves me. The magnitude of the universal force that created the mountains, the trees, the oceans, the skies—loves you? If you can create a space to take all of that in, there is no fear, ever. And ultimately that is what I came to when I was talking myself down from my anxiety about starting OWN. I remember one morning being in Maui and looking at Lahaina from my window, and I could see the clouds coming up, and it was an apricot morning sky. I was in my bedroom that looks like the bow of a ship where you can see 280 degrees on either side of Maui. And I thought, Here you are, in bed, afraid of making the next move and look at where you are...look at where you are. Look at where you have been brought from. I started thinking about my little house in Mississippi, and I started to cry. I thought, Look at all the times when God didn't leave you alone. And I thought, Okay, okay: God is not going to give me this opportunity and just leave me alone—why would I be put in this position, just to fail?

SC: Having faced your fear and made your decision, you're on the other side of that process now. How does it feel?

OW: It feels like the most creative I've ever been. It feels like the most open I've ever been. The network truly feels like a paint box—like a great big palette. When I was a kid, my favorite gift was the 64 box of Crayola crayons. Even now I get excited by things like that. I was in the Lanvin store in London recently and they had a palette of like 120 different colors of pencils. And I looked at it and thought, Okay, I'm gonna get home and there's gonna be all these pencils. What am I gonna do with them? Now, I don't know how to sketch anything, but I was excited by the idea of having all of these different colors; you could just pick up any pencil at any time and sketch. That's what this network now feels like. It feels like you can do anything you can imagine—you can create. Anything you can imagine, you can create. You can give a show to anybody, to any idea, to any concept.

SC: That's what the magazine feels like. When you imagine the network in its full manifestation, how does it feel to you?

OW: [Pauses] Rich and full and nuanced. When I was growing up, Seventeen magazine was like my bible. It was 50 cents a copy. I was at the drugstore every month—I knew the date that they were dropped because I never had enough money for a subscription, but I saved my 50 cents and I was there. Whatever Seventeen magazine said, I did. So I want this channel to sort of be what Seventeen magazine was for me: a space where I could be comforted, a space where I could get some guidance, a space where I could be entertained, a space that was fun for me, where I was allowed to feel most like myself. To me, it's a channel where people will see themselves, and their ideals and their values and their hopes, see their struggles, see who they are through the lives of others—in a real way, that enriches them.

SC: It's incredibly exciting—and yet I wonder if on some level you're going to miss The Oprah Winfrey Show.

OW: I have no regrets about giving it up. I think this is the perfect time. A few years ago, I was interviewing Jerry Seinfeld for the magazine and I was feeling so tired—beyond exhausted—you know, where you're just weary. I was interviewing him during my summer vacation and saying I had to go back to Chicago in a few days. And he said, "I hate it when people whine about their vacations, because your time is yours to design." I never forgot that. It's yours to design. So now I get the paint box. I can do five shows a week, I can do ten shows a week; I could take six weeks off and then tape for six weeks, you know? I get to design how I really want to live my life. Up until now, the work has been my life and has defined everything I've done. Can't do that, because you got the show. Can't do this, because you got the show. You gotta get back, you got the show. But now the show no longer comes first. Yes! I'm putting myself first. Isn't that big?

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Photo: Ruven Afanador


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