Postcards

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

Behind Oprah's next big move

November 20, 2009: 3:43 PM ET

by Patricia Sellers

Now that Oprah Winfrey is talking about her life-changing moves--to cable from broadcast TV and to Los Angeles from Chicago--I have to say: I'm not surprised at all.

After all, Oprah, who says she'll end her daytime show in September 2011, does things only one way: with her full self in the game.

What I know for sure (and she does too): Building a major cable network will take all of the most popular woman on TV.

When I spoke with Winfrey a year ago (on the afternoon of Election Day 2008, when she was flying high as Barack Obama was hours away from winning the Presidency), she told me about her plans to go into cable. We were talking because I was profiling Tom Freston, the former CEO of Viacom (VIAB), whom she had chased around the world--literally--trying to lure the peripatetic corporate refugee to run Harpo, her media conglomerate.

Winfrey, 55, didn't persuade Freston to become her CEO. But she did bring him on as a consultant to OWN, the cable network about empowerment and life purpose that she's now in the throes of developing. "I believe in signs," Winfrey told me that day, going on to explain how David Zaslav, the CEO of Discovery Communications (DISCA), first lured her to think about moving from broadcast to cable. Visiting her at her Harpo office in Chicago in May 2007, Zaslav said to her: "Today, there's MTV and CNN and Discovery and a few brands that will impact people in years ahead."

Zaslav, a former NBC Universal (GE) executive who was aiming to build his own legacy at Discovery, asked Winfrey to think about owning her own TV platform as a way to extend her presence after she's no longer here physically.

The "sign" Oprah saw? She grabbed Zaslav's hand, led him to her desk, and pulled a piece of paper from her drawer. On the piece of paper, she had written a note to herself, years earlier, plotting her own TV network: OWN: the Oprah Winfrey Network. This was the same name as Zaslav was suggesting she call her new channel.

And so it is OWN--a Los-Angeles-based venture that's been marked by repeated launch delays. In February, when I did the Freston story, the target date was early 2010; now it's January 2011.

Developing a new major network is no easy task. But OWN is taking over the prime TV "real estate" of Discovery Health, which will put it in 70 million homes at its start. That's a huge help. Still, it isn't as big a plus as OWN's No.1 asset: Oprah herself.

Fortune's Most Powerful Women
Fortune's Most Powerful Women For the latest on the most influential women in business, philanthropy, government, and the arts, like us on Facebook.
Guest Posts
Fortune Most Powerful Women Fortune Most Powerful Women The rolodex that redefined power
Profile in The Washington Post
Sheryl Sandberg: Sheryl Sandberg: Don't leave before you leave
COO of Facebook
Wendy Clark Wendy Clark Exec learns firsthand how the homeless live
SVP of the Global Sparkling Brand Center at Coca-Cola
Video
Marissa Mayer's 3 biggest decisions as Yahoo CEO With company stock up over 100% since she began running the company 16 months ago, Mayer reflects on her choices to date. Watch
Chelsea Clinton on running for office: 'I don't know' The vice chairman of the Clinton Foundation talks about her diverse career path and growing up in the spotlight. Watch
MPWomen go Global

The Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership brings rising-star women from countries around the world to the U.S. for three-week mentorships with participants of the annual Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit - among them Ursula Burns of Xerox, Laura Lang of Time Inc., Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, and Tory Burch.

Read more

Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.