Parts of this Q&A first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Dressed casual cool in a white button-up shirt, black pants and boots, and hair in loose natural curls, Oprah Winfrey is the picture of relaxation on a recent December afternoon on her lush estate near Santa Barbara.
Maybe it’s her now full-time California residency that has her so laid back (or the long-overdue vacation to Maui she has planned for the next day) but Winfrey appears the most mellow she’s been in more than a year. And why not? Her almost 2-year-old cable network, OWN, is capping off a second — and actually successful — year of growth due to the juggernaut appeal of Winfrey’s exclusive-heavy Next Chapter interviews and widening breadth of clever female-skewing programming aimed at the very viewers who made her an afternoon staple for 25 years.
In a chat with The Hollywood Reporter, Winfrey reflects on the challenges she never expected in launching OWN, the colorful advice given her by a late-night programming icon and the one-time Oprah book club author whose recently-shared mantra of “thinking harder and feeling deeper” she says most mirrors her contemporary ethos as a cable TV pioneer.
The Hollywood Reporter: After a rocky first year launching OWN, you’re finally seeing ratings improve and programming risks pay off. How rewarding is it to see your vision for the network coming to fruition?
Oprah Winfrey: Well, I’m not doing the hula yet! (Laughs) There are many hula-hoops still to come. But yes, compared to a year ago, it feels like a sigh of relief and gratitude that I was able to do exactly what Lorne Michaels told me about two years ago. He said, “It’s like throwing spaghetti against the wall, watching it drizzle down. And you’ll probably have to use the word ‘motherf—er’ a lot.” (Laughs) No, he said “Nothing’s going to work till you get there.” That’s the great lesson: You can have vision but unless you maintain leadership of the vision and are there to help oversee the execution of the vision, it doesn’t work. The other great lesson has been: All success comes with patience, and with patience comes power. One of my favorite sayings is “Understanding the definition of power is really strength times strength times strength.” Strength over time equals power, and really recognizing that building a network from the ground up is just that. Strength times strength times strength. And it doesn’t happen overnight.
THR: And apparently, it doesn’t matter who you are.
Winfrey: (Laughs) Exactly. Every single person told me it would take five years. Even when I was sitting at, literally, the feet of Lorne at David Geffen’s house — he was sitting in a chair and I curled up at the bottom of his feet — he said, “It’s going to take you five years.” I told him, “Oh I think we’ll be able to do it sooner than that.” And he goes, “Five.” He said it was about finding the right people, that there was an art to finding the right people. There are only nine people who know how to do anything, he said. It’s been a process of finding the right fit on that front. The first major right decision I made was putting myself there and bringing in [OWN presidents] Sheri Salata and Erik Logan. They understood my DNA. I had a shorthand with them. It’s funny, doing the Oprah show was like breathing to me. The last two shows were the only ones I did not critique. But up until then, every single day for every single show that’s what I was doing.
THR: Well, you and Lorne definitely have that in common — an engrained need to constantly want to improve. And you’re hard on yourselves when you aren’t.
Winfrey: That’s right. You’re always raising your own bar. You’re your own greatest competition. That has been my standard for myself. In the beginning of my career, I thought it was Geraldo Rivera, then “Oh God … Ricki Lake, who’s that?” Then I realized, “You are it. You are the person you are raising the bar for.”
THR: No one can launch a new cable network and make it successful in less than two years, but that’s exactly people expected of OWN. Do you think the criticism heaped on you during the first year of OWN was unfair?
Winfrey: I think the expectation — and part of my own expectation — was I had 25 years of success, and I thought people would just leverage that into the network. Well, we didn’t account for people not having the channel, not knowing how to find the channel, the cable audience being different than the broadcast audience and more competition. We didn’t account for all that. In spite of all that, I’d say we’ve been able to make the turn, make the pivot and start to gather our tribe in such a way that people are responding to the programming. That’s what’s really exciting. My favorite show is Super Soul Sunday. I love that it’s opening up the heart chakra for viewers in a way. They’re choosing to live more fully and have a more open mind about the choices they make. This is a new Sunday morning expression allowing people to probe their own paths of spirituality and how are they are defining it. I will tweet myself hula-hooping when that’s the No. 1 show on OWN. (Laughs)
THR: What else are you proud of this year?
Winfrey: Gathering the tribe for Life Class and Iyanla Fix My Life. Also running around the country doing these Next Chapter interviews. Every interview I do, whether it’s Rihanna, Usher, Daniel Day-Lewis … all of them are life classes. I get to have a thoughtful conversation with someone, not interrupted by having to go to commercial breaks. It’s so different interviewing people when they’re not in front of an audience: so intimate and so personal. People really bring 100 percent of themselves. I’m most excited about Master Class. Last year Jane Fonda did one.
THR: I can see you and Jane having a pretty open conversation about the meaning of life.
Winfrey: Yes, we have a good vibe! She’s in a league of using her life to lift the consciousness wherever she can and so am I. That’s what my whole life is all about. That’s where I am now. I’ve compared it to feeling like climbing Kilimanjaro at the beginning of the year. Sheri Salata, God bless her, said to me, “When we finish the Oprah show, now we actually can go climb Kilimanjaro. We’re going to train in Telluride, and then climb Kilimanjaro.”
THR: That takes a road trip with Gayle to the next level!
Winfrey: (Laughs) Yes. I said to Sheri, “We don’t have to actually climb Kilimanjaro. We’re already doing it! It’s inside [OWN headquarters] at 5700 Wilshire Blvd.”
THR: Who was your toughest Next Chapter interview this year? Or, someone who surprised you?
Winfrey: Interestingly enough, the person who most surprised me the most was Rihanna. She brought one thousand percent of her. You could tell that she came ready. She was open to anything. But I don’t do an interview if someone tells me I can’t ask a certain question. My policy is, I can ask any question, you can tell me you won’t answer it, but you have to tell me that on camera. I really didn’t know that much about her. I just thought she was so thoughtful and so smart. I didn’t know that she was or wasn’t, I only knew her from her music.
THR: Well, it was a brilliant PR moment for her as well.
Winfrey: What’s really happening is that people see that when they give me an opportunity to sit down with them, I really just want them to be fully themselves. The way I approach every interview is to use my own sort of Super Soul training: You allow the presence in you to speak to the presence in the other person. You drop the facade and you really see soul to soul with somebody.
THR: Well, it’s clearly working. Is there something you want the business insiders of Hollywood to know about what you’re still hoping to achieve with OWN?
Winfrey: I want to try to, as I heard recently, “Lift people to thinking higher and feeling deeper.” That’s a quote I got from [author] Elie Wiesel just yesterday. When he said it, it just penetrated inside me. I’m going to remember that.
THR: How do you keep track of all these words of wisdom swirling around your brain?
Winfrey: (Laughs) I love words. I thought “Gee, well that’s exactly what I’m trying to do with my own life and this channel!” Thinking higher and feeling deeper. In every single circumstance there’s a way to look at it with deeper feeling and thinking higher. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to have fun. I definitely want a couple of LOLs and laughing’-my-ass-offs moments along the way, too.