Oprah on OWN: 'We're Building Night By Night' (Exclusive)

Oprah Winfrey, left, and Sheri Salata
Oprah Winfrey, left, and Sheri Salata
 George Burns/Harpo Productions Inc.

Oprah Winfrey admits the OWN network is still a work in progress.

"We're building, night by night by night. What everyone told me about the cable business is the way you do cable is you start with a couple of shows, people are used to repeats," Winfrey told The Hollywood Reporter from the Chicago offices of Harpo Productions. "Oprah viewers were not!"

Winfrey says she's actively seeking audience input while building her network, and even signed up for an oprah@oprah.com email address on her website last week, which she plans to use to interact with people.

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The network's first hit is Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes, which earlier this month was averaging 546,000 viewers, and has seen a 40 percent boost in the network's key women 25-54 demo from DVR usage. 1.6 million viewers tuned in to its premiere. Compared to what Discovery Health was averaging in 2010, it's up 262 percent in total viewers.

The show "was my idea," says Winfrey. "Originally there was some talk about doing it as a documentary film. I shot that down, because I thought my viewers don't want to now go pay to see a film about me. [I said], 'What would make it really interesting is to put it in your living rooms, where I've been all these years.'"

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Winfrey's producers are followed by a 16-person production team, Harpo president (and executive producer of Winfrey's talk show since 2006) Sheri Salata tells THR. ("Oprah is the only person who has any comfort at all in front of the camera," she jokes. For the rest of the staff," it's agonizing." Quips Winfrey: "It's second nature for me. I've been on camera since I was 19. A lot of people are a little awkward.")

Despite Winfrey insisting that she doesn't think her life "is that darn entertaining," the series will continue to delve deeper into her personal life, including more appearances by longtime partner Stedman Graham, whom Winfrey comments is the no. 1 fan.

"They had a shot of me in the tub [Wednesday]. I thought it was too much. C'mon people, we went a little too far behind the scenes with this shot!" jokes Winfrey.

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It will chronicle the end of production through May. Then later this year, Winfrey's new show, Oprah's Next Chapter, will kick off in the same vein.

"Oprah as we know it with a studio audience is over. We can't do it any better than we've done it," Salata tells THR. "I think you can expect to see Oprah out in the world, and having the look and feel very different. it's about what Oprah is interested in exploring and interested in life."

"I think we've figured out how to do it," Salata goes on. "If we stay in a reality style, and not having Oprah as a presenter. There will be interviews, some things will be really elaborate like with Australia…"

Winfrey explains it like this: "Oprah's Next Chapter is a loose feel, like Behind the Scenes…. We'll shoot the interview wherever it's happening, in that sort of reality space. It's about trying to stay in the truth space, the reality space. It's also just making it good television."

In the meantime, Winfrey is counting down until the end of her talk show, and plans to take a vacation after taping her Oscars special.

"I'm feeling terrific about it. I'm feeling energized. Better than I ever have," Winfrey says when asked about the end. "When we end a season, we usually feel like we got hit by a truck. I've kept a diary all my life. I looked back at all my diaries. A good year is if you don't feel like you've been hit by a truck at the end of the season."

"As we near the end of this 25-year-run, everybody's emotions are running pretty high. Every time you mention it, somebody is 'wah wah wah,'" says Winfrey, adding that it's been "a big emotional twirly-do" for her staff, many of whom have worked with her for 10 or more years.

She is confident she is moving on from her talk show at the right time.

"I'm so happy I didn't stay in the wing until I was punch drunk and people had to drag me out with my microphone and say, 'Enough already!'" says Winfrey. "I always thought I would take my cues from the viewers. I took the cue from the landscape of television. It got harder and harder and harder to raise the bar every day. What we're doing is primetime television done in the daytime. The amount of money spent, editors… everything it takes to do this show… it got harder to raise the bar."

She doesn't even know the topics of her last two talk shows.

"I'm allowing for Sheri and the team to plan two days of full surprises. I've given up control for the last two days. It's a lot to relinquish," Winfrey says. "I had to pray on that…. and get a guarantee from Sheri there would be no strippers or dancing people coming out of shells."

Winfrey reflects on how the show has changed: "It's a completely different show than when we first started and it was four people sitting in a row. I was booking guests myself, and then going out to the Limited and shopping after. The time has changed! I used to go to the Limited and buy a $29.99 dress and then tequila shots for everyone. Those days are over. It's time to bring this phase to an end."

There are a few episodes of series in the works for her network that Winfrey is especially excited about, including Oprah Presents Master Class with Sidney Poitier, and Behind the Scenes: Australia.

"I cannot tell you what it took…" she says of the trip that she and John Travolta announced on the season premiere.

Out of an audience of 300, "200 people had never been out of the country, so we had to get passports and all that comes with getting passports. Then you had all those people with, 'Who's gonna call my boss? I can't get eight days off work!' Then getting them there… from the time they got to the airport, you had to have them entertained. Even on the plane: what are you going to do? Where is everyone going to go? It was a major production," says Winfrey. "The television end was the easy part. The difficulty was managing daily events for 300 people for eight straight days… the team earned their general stripes."

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