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Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network

Sheri Salata

OWN President Sheri Salata is optimistic about the direction Winfrey has chosen for her network, and about the potential of multi-platform programming.

An icon like Oprah Winfrey, having wrapped up 25 years of perhaps the most successful show in daytime television history, would be forgiven for taking some well deserved time off. But driven by her passion for creating enlightening, thought-provoking programming, starting her own network was an offer she couldn’t refuse.

The idea came—says Sheri Salata, the executive producer of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and now president (along with Erik Logan) of OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network—in a phone call from David Zaslav, president and CEO of cable powerhouse Discovery. Recalls Salata, “When that call came in, as we were talking about when we would sunset the show, it felt very much like a divine path. When you have an opportunity to take the work we’ve done and expand it into something new in cable, I think that was very intriguing for her.” Salata says they saw tremendous potential in taking “everything Discovery knows about a successful cable business” and add “the Oprah lens and how she connects and engages with people.” The vision for the network, which Salata says is not too far away from the original mission of the Oprah Show, is “to bring light into people’s lives providing programs that entertain, inform and inspire.” Salata adds, “It’s the joy and honor of Oprah’s life to do this.”

OWN, with somewhat of a slow start when it launched on January 1, 2011, had to make some recent cutbacks. Winfrey told the “CBS This Morning” show that in retrospect she felt they launched before they were ready and they probably should have waited until she wrapped “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” But OWN has begun to build momentum. According to its fact sheet, for first quarter 2012, OWN garnered double digit growth across their key demographics (women 25 to 54), and Salata says she is feeling hopeful and encouraged. “We are in a better position than we’ve been in since the network launched. I think anybody can understand that there’s a lot more things to manage, probably, than anybody knew. But gosh, isn’t it like that with all new things?” Salata calls the experience of developing OWN “a rocket ride,” considering “the volume of ideas that we need to come up with on a daily basis.”

Having been on the air only 17 months, OWN is bringing to the network new seasons of original programming including “Oprah’s Lifeclass,” “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s,” “Oprah’s Master Class” and “Our America with Lisa Ling.” Throughout its fall run, “Oprah’s Lifeclass,” a series in which Oprah discusses the principles that guide her life (often with special guest teachers), posted double-digit growth and was a true multi-platform experience. Winfrey regularly engages online with her fans via Oprah.com, Skype and on Twitter and Facebook with live discussions, and over the course of two seasons, Lifeclass had 6.5 million online streams. Salata sees this kind of pioneering integration of social media as “the space that we literally can ‘own,’’’ Winfrey’s reservoir of more than 11 million Twitter followers means that “every move we make in social media is much bigger than if we were XYZ Network.” Salata is convinced that “the social media thing is the path to having our network stand apart from all the others.” She says, “I think we are going to learn some very interesting things about connection and engagement. To already be worldwide online—when OWN is not distributed worldwide yet, other than Canada—allows us to lead ahead of where we’re at. We don’t have to wait for the business of it to catch up. I wake up every day thinking about how social media is the gasoline that can fuel us to go further, faster. I really do.”

In Winfrey’s appeal to women, Salata sees another opportunity to break important ground. “Clearly there is a void in how women are engaged and connected with on television,” says Salata. “Without wearing a sandwich board proclaiming that we’re about the evolution of consciousness and empowerment of women, that is definitely what we’re about.” OWN, which last year aired the powerful documentary Miss Representation on destructive media messages aimed at women and girls, is looking to do just the opposite with its own programming. (Two of Women’s Media Center’s co-founders, Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem have both been profiled on OWN. Fonda gave a candid, in-depth interview for the series “Master Class” and Winfrey interviewed Gloria Steinem in her home for the series “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” followed by an intergenerational conversation with Steinem, Winfrey and 60 students at Barnard College).

Down the road, Salata says she sees a “huge opportunity” to cover substantive issues with conferences on television and on a digital platform, simulcasting, “finding a way to bring some of the female thought leaders from the United States and around the world to a space where they can speak to a larger audience. Those kinds of things are all on our vision board.”

Life coach and best-selling author Tony Robbins—who appeared as a guest teacher on this past season of “Oprah’s Lifeclass: The Tour,” and whose series “Breakthrough” was aired this past season on OWN—has enormous respect for Winfrey. “People don’t realize what kind of courage it takes to do something like this. To try to build a network on all positive content in a world where if it bleeds, it leads, is the line for almost every news piece. For her to have the world staring at her while she builds it requires an incredible level of courage and caring, because she sure as hell doesn’t need the money and she doesn’t need the acknowledgment. She’s already Oprah, for God’s sake!” He points out, “Her gift is content that can change people’s lives and that’s what she’s focused on.”

Salata, who has worked intimately with Oprah over the course of her 17 years at Harpo, puts it this way, “She is the most famous person who cares the least about fame that I know. I remember thinking one day—it was a total epiphany for me—that she would be just as happy being a fourth grade teacher with a little house, a porch swing and three oak trees, because she would be working to be the best teacher for those students and that would be her mission.”

Asked her ultimate dream for OWN, Salata says “when we put on Lifeclass and it’s not just 200 countries, it’s every country and we have teachers on television and on the web from countries all over the world—and I can see it happening.” In the meantime, Salata is immensely enjoying her journey with OWN, confessing that “never once has this felt like a job.” She says, “I sit backstage at those Lifeclasses and am watching the Twitter feeds, I am watching Facebook, I’m watching the photos being posted and shared, I’m watching people who are sitting at home, taking a little lesson and tweeting that out and it getting retweeted around the world and nothing makes me happier!”

For more information on OWN—the Oprah Winfrey Network and for a schedule of OWN programs, visit http://www.oprah.com/own. To read the full interview with Sheri Salata, click here.

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