Q&A: Christina Norman

The OWN CEO is aiming for her 'best life' at the Oprah-Discovery network

When Christina Norman unexpectedly stepped down as MTV president in February 2007 after 17 years with the company, including a stint as a president of VH1, many believed she would immediately run OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, the fledging co-venture between Winfrey and Discovery Communications. Instead, Norman took a year off. Equally surprising, she joined OWN in January as a CEO, reuniting with her mentor and former boss, Viacom's ex-president and CEO Tom Freston, who has been consulting for the upstart. Her arrival was followed by the April departure of OWN president Robin Schwartz.

The Hollywood Reporter: What is the inside story behind your joining OWN?

Norman: When I first left MTV, one of the very first things I did was start talking to Discovery and to Oprah about this job. As much as I loved the mission, Oprah and everyone involved, I was just completely fried. The one thing I said to Oprah was "You can't fake the funk." I was totally faking it, a year ago. My head wasn't in it, my heart wasn't in it completely, so I was so fortunate to be able to take the break that I needed and still have this opportunity present itself.

THR: Did you know Oprah before that?

Norman: I didn't know her personally. We met in 2006 in South Africa, the year she opened her school. Coincidentally, I was there on vacation with my family. We ended up in the same hotel and through mutual friends we were introduced.

THR: You've said that your personal story mirrors the goals and mission of this network, Living Your Best Life. How is that?

Norman: I found myself at a place with a job that was, on the surface, an amazing job, and if anybody else would look at you they'd say, "Wow, you've got this perfect life." But I certainly wasn't fulfilled in it. I needed to be able to take a step away from what I was doing at the time and really re-focus myself: What makes me happy, what do I want to leave behind in this world? How am I a good wife and mother and daughter and friend? Those were the things I wasn't so happy about, the way they were going in my life. I think that that's the journey of OWN. I think all of us want to live engaging, fulfilling, inspiring and inspired lives.

THR: That's great, but you know from MTV and VH1 and from phenomena like TLC's "Jon & Kate Plus 8" that viewers tend to be drawn to train wrecks more than inspirational programming.

Norman: But that makes the assumption that that's all that people want to watch, and I completely reject that. Clearly there are people that like that, but look at the numbers. There are plenty of people who aren't watching that, who aren't connecting with anything. You can't help but look around the country and see what happened with the election and the movement that was sprouted around Barack Obama. People were saying, "I'm not going to take it anymore, I don't want business as usual. The status quo is broken." I look at shows like "In Plain Sight" on USA, an incredibly redemptive story, and it does really well too. So there's room and there's a hunger for more.

THR: How hands-on has Oprah been on the programming side?

Norman: Tons of hands-on involvement from Oprah. Obviously, this is her name, her legacy, her vision, so we're reviewing show ideas with her constantly. She is shaping this network, so whether or not that involves bringing us ideas and talent that she's seen and says "Maybe this is something that you guys can finesse and mold more for OWN," or us bringing her ideas.

THR: What about Tom Freston?

The best thing about having Tom involved in this network is that his office is right next-door to mine. I can walk into his office and say, "Hey, what do you think about this?" Or he can come into my office and say, "Do you know this person? Maybe they should be doing something for us."

THR: What were the reasons behind Robin Schwartz's departure?

Norman: The executive structure that was created early in the development of OWN didn't allow for a streamline of executive reporting. I eliminated the president position and brought those lines of business directly to me.

THR: Can we expect more executive changes?

Norman: We are a growing company that will respond as necessary to the evolving needs of the organization.

THR: You have a tremendous advantage because the face of the network is on TV every day and has a large, loyal audience.

Norman: I would say that Oprah is not the face of the network. She's the inspiration of the network. The audience is the face of the network. This network is not Oprah TV. It can't be. So I think we've got to expand the notion of what it means to live a life with purpose, which includes humor, which includes talk shows, which includes all sorts of non-scripted things, which might even include game shows. It will include documentaries. This is something that we have a lot of discussions about here, internally as well: the difference between Oprah, the person; Oprah's talk show; the brand; and OWN, the network.

THR: Speaking of her show, would it ever migrate to the new channel?

Norman: That's a decision that she's going to make, not me.