The idea of launching a television network bearing her name terrified Oprah Winfrey. The debut of OWN — the Oprah Winfrey Network — gave the most powerful woman in media anxiety and even kept her up at night. And that’s exactly why she went ahead with it.
“A lot of people around me said, ‘You should hold onto “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Why would you give that up?’ Because it’s time to grow to the next phase,” Winfrey told journalists at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif., on Thursday. “Whenever I have outgrown a circumstance or a situation, I move on regardless of whether I know what the future holds. I believed that even if [OWN] didn’t work, it was worth the risk.”
Winfrey exuded her trademark warmth and positivity as she spoke with critics, explaining that the network is “operating strictly from the point of view of how we’re going to serve [the audience],” a programming-first business model that isn’t the norm in television, she acknowledged [see sidebar for OWN’s early numbers]. “Obviously, ratings are important. They’re not as important to me right now,” Winfrey said. “We’re going to have some, you know, perhaps rocky times with the channel, keeping people there and keeping people motivated to continue watching. What I know is, just like that adage of ‘you build it and they will come,’ you serve them and they will come.”
Focus on positive energy
The name “Oprah” in itself is a huge draw, and giving her famous friends — BFF Gayle King, financial guru Suze Orman and sex expert Laura Berman, to name a few — OWN shows is a natural extension of the relationship fans have had with the talk-show queen over her series’ 25-year run. But the OWN programming philosophy is about much more than just likable hosts.
“The intention of this channel is to bring good energy, to bring your best self, to bring your best shows,” Winfrey said. “I have a sign [in my makeup room] that says, ‘Be responsible for the energy that you bring into this room.’ And I am very much aware of the energy that the television is transmitting all the time.”
Oprah Winfrey’s bestie, Gayle King, hosts a radio talk show that makes its television premiere on OWN this morning at 10 a.m. “We’ve been doing this on radio for the past four and a half — going on five — years, and so far, knock on wood, it’s been very successful,” King says of “The Gayle King Show.” “And what I don’t want to do is [screw] it all up TV. I want to figure out a way to capture the intimacy of what we do on radio and bring it to TV.”
OWN by the numbers
Viewers who made Winfrey a television institution over the last 25 years tuned in full-force for the Jan. 1 debut of OWN — 7.6 million people watched during its first day, a very impressive number. Ratings have dropped since initial curiosity in the network has died down, but Winfrey remains confident in her latest endeavor.
“You’re not going to get everybody,” she said. “But at this point in my life, I’m not trying to get everybody. I’m really not. I’m really only trying to get the people who want to hear it and who want to see it. And if you don’t, then I’m not talking to you, and that’s OK, because there’s a lot of people in the world. There’s room for everybody.”