OWN President Dishes on What It's Like Working for Oprah Winfrey
Erik Logan discusses launching the network's first prestige drama ('Greenleaf,' co-starring Winfrey), Ava DuVernay's upcoming 'Queen Sugar' and working with "the Brand." Says Logan, "I wouldn't expect to see me going rogue and greenlighting a 13-episode order without her signing off on it anytime soon."
"Look ahead in a new direction." The writing literally is on the wall at OWN's West Hollywood offices. Fittingly, it's a quote from the boss herself, CEO Oprah Winfrey, but lately those words have taken on new meaning for network president Erik Logan. Coming off of its most watched year, the network — up 13 percent in total viewers compared with 2014 — will launch its first prestige scripted series, Greenleaf, on June 21.
The megachurch drama — which already has been renewed for season two — hails from Six Feet Under and Lost alum Craig Wright and features Winfrey in a recurring role. Later this year, OWN will add Ava DuVernay's drama series Queen Sugar to a lineup better known for its more populist Tyler Perry series. Behind the scenes, the 5-year-old network, co-owned by cable behemoth Discovery Communications and Winfrey's Harpo Productions, also has undergone a dramatic shift with the May exit of Logan's co-president Sheri Salata, who had logged 21 years with Winfrey. Logan, 45, or "Elo" as the nameplate outside his office reads, now runs day-to-day operations of the 165-employee network, expanding his purview to include the creative side as well as the business one.
Fortunately, he has Winfrey, who not only lends her name to the network but also her insights on edits, promos, series and even costumes. "One of the things Oprah has taught us all is, 'Love is in the details,' " says Logan, a married father of two who starts each day on his surfboard.
The Oklahoma native, a radio industry veteran before joining Harpo Studios in 2008, sat down for a conversation about OWN's rough early days, the network's turning point and what, exactly, an Oprah note entails.
How have your day-to-day duties changed since becoming the network's sole president in May?
I leaned more toward the operational, business side. Sheri leaned more toward the creative side. She was an executive producer for all those years, but at the beginning and end of every day, we'd huddle up and go through the decisions that we had made. Because of that level of communication, it gives me a tremendous advantage in stepping in and taking the lead on the rest of those projects.
Why did Salata leave? She's worked closely with Oprah since way back on the daytime show.
Oprah is a person who encourages people to do what they want, and [Salata] wanted to tell stories. She wanted to do it on her own. And Oprah was like, "Then that's what you should do."
Greenleaf and Queen Sugar mark OWN's first two scripted shows not from Tyler Perry. What were you looking for in expanding scripted offerings?
Everybody who said it takes five years to get a network up and going was right. (Laughs.) I think what [Winfrey] sparks to and what a lot of the creative teams have sparked to has been that both of these are family dramas, but they're also in settings and telling stories that you don't see, and that's what sets them apart. It's not just another family drama in insert-your-town here. An African-American megachurch [drama] was specifically picked by Oprah. Queen Sugar was based upon a book that she read years ago. If you think about it, what family drama have you seen that's taken place around sugarcane? The answer's none.
How involved is Oprah in the development process?
It's almost easier for me to tell you what she's not involved with. She's been involved in every aspect of the development for Greenleaf and Queen Sugar. I mean every aspect — being on set for shooting, looking at mood boards, looking at outfits, changing singular words in every single script, being in the writers room.
What specifically does she bring to that process?
Our network's name is a person, and it's not a person that's no longer here. It's a person who you can pick up the phone and, as I jokingly say, you can call the brand. Oh, by the way, if the brand doesn't like what you're doing, the brand can call you. She'll call you when she watches the network, and [she] asks questions. What she brings is that intuitive gift that she has and has refined over decades when it comes to a 15-second promo or a 13-episodic order for a show.
What does an Oprah call or a note entail?
This is going to sound overly simplistic, but we always open the meeting with an "intention statement." It is her favorite word. She believes in setting the intention. And so when she sees something and she doesn't understand why, that's always the first question. It's like, "OK, what was the intention of that?" Or, "What is the intention of us doing this?" It can come across like you're in trouble, but she has a beautiful way of hearing what that is, understanding it and going, "OK, so next time let's try this."
What is the conversation like when the two of you don't see eye to eye on a project?
Short. (Laughs.) She absolutely, 1,000 percent wants to hear what everybody has to say. I mean, to a fault. She wants to hear, and she's very respectful when she's like, "I don't agree with that. I want to do this." Inherently, anybody who works at any of the [Winfrey] companies has signed up to help her advance her mission. So when she's like, "I don't want to do that, I want to do this," it's actually empowering. It removes a lot of the mystery of should we, could we, and it's like, "Well, let's just ask and find out."
Do you need her signoff before any project is greenlighted?
When it comes to creative decisions of that magnitude, for sure. But she's empowered our marketing teams and promo teams and our ad sales teams and our affiliate teams to run the businesses. After five years, because the network's in a much better place and we're healthy, we don't need to run very small decisions by her. But I wouldn't expect to see me going rogue and greenlighting a 13-episode order without her signing off on it anytime soon.
What went into the decision to have Oprah act in Greenleaf?
[When] I was reading some of the early drafts, I had visions of just how much more fantastic it could be [with her in it]. But there was something inside of me that was like, "Don't ask, don't ask." I remember she called and said, "I think I'm going to play Mavis." I had to put my phone on mute because I was so excited. And then I was like, "This is fantastic!" I didn't want to go over the top.
Back in 2012, when the network was struggling, Oprah famously said, "Had I known that it was this difficult, I might have done something else." What did you think when you heard that?
Oh, I totally understood. She was just being honest, and anybody who had been walking in her shoes would have a great deal of empathy for that statement at the time. And she's made a career of connecting with viewers and fans across the world by being honest. So, how else would she answer that question? That moment for her — and for all of us — was like, "Yeah, it's been tough." Anybody who tells you that it wasn't is [lying].
What was the turning point?
The first big piece of validation for me was Bobbi Kristina. We'd been trying to figure out Saturday night. Oprah was doing Next Chapter, and we had some success with Joel Osteen and Steven Tyler. Whitney [Houston] had passed, and Oprah was a friend of the family, and we did a 90-minute special with Bobbi Kristina. We turned it around really quickly and got it on the air. The next morning, we did 3.5 million viewers. That was significant because we'd been telling ourselves that nobody can really find us — that we're not in enough homes or whatever the excuses were. What I walked away with was, if we get the content right, they will find us because they just did. It removed a layer of skepticism culturally for us as a company.
OWN's audience now skews heavily African-American. Was that always part of the plan?
No, it wasn't. One of the beautiful success stories of OWN is Welcome to Sweetie Pie's. It aggregated this audience that was predominantly African-American, and Oprah herself finds such power in the fact that we can put positive images of African-American women on the air and aggregate audiences around that. So that is the base of what the network was at the time on Saturdays. When we put programming on that is Oprah-centric — SuperSoul Sunday, Master Class — those skew more balanced between African-American and non-African-American viewers.
What's the biggest misconception of OWN?
Because our SuperSoul brand is so strong, there is a misconception in the marketplace that the network is all about that. It's like, "Well, why would I ever want to watch the Oprah network? It's not for me." But we have a little bit of everything.
This story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.