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

Will Oprah disown OWN?

April 3, 2012: 12:36 PM ET

Photo Credit: Desiree Gruber

If she wrote a book about OWN, Oprah Winfrey said on CBS This Morning yesterday, she could call it 101 Mistakes.

Oprah's No. 1 error? Launching her cable TV network "when we really weren't ready to launch," she confessed to best friend Gayle King and her co-host, Charlie Rose.

About her 15-month-old joint venture with Discovery Communications (DISCA), Oprah added: "Had I known it was this difficult, I might have done something else."

With the former daytime TV queen now averaging fewer than 300,000 viewers in primetime, might she pull the plug on her cable network and go back to broadcast? Indeed, Oprah could call her old friend Bob Iger, the Walt Disney (DIS) CEO who oversees ABC, and say: "Bob, just give me back my big, beloved broadcast TV audience." She'd have a hit on the air in an instant.

But don't bet on Oprah quitting OWN—at least, not for a while. Last evening at Radio City Music Hall, she ended her day as dramatically as she started it: on stage with fellow evangelist Tony Robbins, preaching about "Living Fearlessly." This was a two-hour Lifeclass program that aired live on OWN. "Self-empowerment and fulfillment," she told the audience, "is the real and only reason I did a network." During a commercial break, she joked, "Building a network, I get to face my fears everyday."

The Radio City crowd (including me) left the theater, if not personally emboldened, believing that Oprah will soldier on in her entrepreneurial struggle. "You are what you believe," she told us, adding, "I'm God's child. That means I can do anything."

Meanwhile, Discovery is emboldened by a bit of good news: OWN has started to collect subscription fees from cable operators like Comcast (CMCSA), which initially carried the network for free. Discovery put up all the money for OWN—$312 million so far—in exchange for the Oprah brand, her library and her presence. Discovery pays Oprah, who took charge as CEO of OWN last summer, no salary. But to earn a profit on the venture, Discovery must increase sub fees and satisfy advertisers like Procter & Gamble (PG) and General Motors (GM), which had big expectations for the network.

And though some have speculated that Discovery CEO David Zaslav may cut his losses, he's more likely to exercise patience. Famously restless but fiercely competitive, he is too personally vested in OWN to walk. He came up with the idea for the network and sold it to Oprah, who had dreamed years before about having a venture called OWN. (See "Oprah's Next Act.")

So far, OWN's troubles don't seem to be hurting Discovery. The company, with $4.2 billion in 2011 revenues, has been one of the hottest stocks in the media universe. The shares, which are trading at an all-time high of $51.18, helped lift Zaslav's 2011 compensation, including vested options, to $52.4 million. Zaslav declined to comment for this story, but he has been reminding his colleagues at Discovery that building a successful cable network is always a "journey." Bravo and Fox News, for instance, took years to find their big audiences.

And Discovery learned its own lesson from one of its cable networks, TLC. Initially positioning TLC as a hip channel, with stars and an LA sensibility, Discovery struggled. TLC's viewers wanted to watch middle America. Today, TLC shows like Cake Boss and Toddlers in Tiaras help make it a top-rated network among female viewers. The lesson? Listen to your audience.

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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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