How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Oprah's OWN moment: Stedman's note inspired the dream

January 3, 2011: 12:48 PM ET

by Patricia Sellers

Oprah Winfrey arrived on cable this weekend at long last. And I do mean long.

When I interviewed Oprah in her Chicago office a few months ago, she pulled a piece of paper out of her desk drawer. It was a note, scrawled in pencil, that Stedman Graham, her boyfriend, wrote to her when they were on vacation together in April 1992. Oprah had never shared the note with the media, and she declined to let me share the full content with you. (Yes, I asked). But as we sat there and talked about the origin of OWN, she let me read the letter and scrawl my own notes. So, here is at least part of what Stedman Graham wrote to Oprah that important day nearly 19 years ago:

"How does Oprah position herself in the next decade? OWN. That's right. OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network....This is God's way and Oprah's vision..."

Granted, people like you and I don't plot media empires on our vacations. Then again, we are not Oprah. Stedman's idea inspired her, and at the bottom of that piece of paper, she wrote that the goal of OWN "will be to create mindful rather than mindless programming."

Fortune Oprah's Next ActThen she sat on the idea for 15 years. It took another passionate persuader, Discovery Communication (DISCA) CEO David Zaslav, to come along in the spring of 2007 and offer Oprah the proper incentive to act on her dream.

In "Oprah's Next Act," my recent Fortune cover story, Oprah talks about agreeing to co-create a cable TV network with Zaslav ("I don't want your money," he told her. "I want you.") and then feeling so terrified of her commitment that she practically backed out of the venture.

But she didn't. And finally, we have OWN, which isn't as easy to find as The Oprah Winfrey Show, which will stay on broadcast TV until this coming September. (OWN, which replaced Discovery Health across the U.S., is Channel 115 on Time Warner Cable in Manhattan and Channel 219 in Los Angeles.) The first TV network built around one human being, it is the grandest experiment yet in the personalization of media and Oprah's biggest risk in her career.

She admits that. So, do you think Oprah will succeed?

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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