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July 27, 2016

Here's To a Higher Up

To produce Belief — the docu-series on faith that she calls her (capital-O) Offering to the world — Oprah Winfrey supported the three-year, 33-nation production with her own funds. But that's not all that's looking up in Winfrey's world. Ratings are rising at OWN, and scripted series are expanding.

Jenny Hontz
  • Harpo, Inc./Jake Rosenberg of The Coveteur
  • Belief

    Courtesy of OWN Oprah Winfrey Network

When Oprah Winfrey left her talk show and founded the Oprah Winfrey Network five years ago, the cable channel initially struggled to find an audience.

But after broadening its focus, OWN has experienced four consecutive years of double-digit primetime ratings growth and become a top cable destination for African-American women.

Winfrey opened up recently to emmy's Jenny Hontz about the challenges of launching a network, her passion project Belief, a return to TV acting and diversity in Hollywood.

Can you talk about the difficulty of starting OWN and how you got through it?

I certainly thought it would be easier. Lorne Michaels told me that I was in the learning curve of my life, and that it would take me five years, and I said "Oh, no, no, no." And he said, "My dear, you have no idea what you've just gotten yourself into."

The biggest mistake is that I thought, "Oh, you'll get a channel, and you'll tell everybody what that channel is, and everybody will just come over and watch whatever you have."

First of all, your placement, what [channel] number you are is crucial. And also not understanding, "Oh, everybody didn't have the channel." I mean, my first week, I had emails from angry people saying, "I can't get the channel, and I'm not going to pay more money because you're not a part of my cable package."

Well, I never had even thought about a cable package or what that meant. And the biggest mistake is, we thought that the Oprah viewers would automatically follow us to the Oprah channel, but the Oprah viewers didn't have the Oprah channel.

You had to learn the whole business side of cable.

I had made this mistake in 1987-88 but didn't pay as heavy a price for it. That was a foreshadowing of this mistake.

After I'd been on the air for maybe a year, King World decided they wanted to move the timeslot for The Oprah [Winfrey] Show, because we started out in the morning on all the stations. King World said, "We're going to move it to the afternoon, because the show is doing so well."

We all know you get paid more money for the afternoon timeslot. So I just said okay, assuming that the nine o'clock audience was going to follow to four o'clock. And they did not. We had to rebuild a four o'clock audience, because the people who were available at nine were not available at four.

So the same thing is true for the OWN channel. You have to rebuild a new audience and then come up with programming that suits the new audience.

Tell us about Belief, the seven-part documentary series exploring faith practices of everyday people around the world. It was born out of that difficult period.

It was a passion project. It started when I was in the heart of the climb of building a network. I had to come back and ask myself, "What is it I really want, and what am I doing this for?" And when I asked that question, the answer showed up in the form of Belief.

Being able to share stories that exemplified the heart of humanity in all places in the world. Being able to show the connection that we all have to being here on planet Earth, and what it means to be striving for something that's more.

In all of the storytelling that I've ever done, my number-one goal is to lift the consciousness, so that at some point during the viewing experience there is an emotional aha! that occurs.

It was a massive project and took years to make before it debuted last October.

It was filmed over three years and 33 countries. I paid for it with my own money because I believed in it so much — and knew that at the time that we'd started it, I was not in a position to go to [OWN partner] Discovery and say, "I would like to do a series about what people believe, all over the world. Could you please finance that?”

So it meant enough to me to spend my own cash to do it, and from the very beginning, the story of the Aboriginal grandfather still is my favorite story of all. And being able to show that Aboriginal grandfather and his grandson Lucas, juxtaposed against the rabbi and his son in Hungary. You get to see that the love is the same.

When Lucas is dancing, and the grandfather says, "Good on you, grandson, good on you," I cry every time. And when the rabbi says, "Do I want to live my life through my son? I'm trying not to live my life through my son, but it makes me proud to see my son on this day of bar mitzvah," I mean, every time.

But you see what I was trying to show you. The love is the same. The feeling is the same, I think we accomplished that.

Spirituality is certainly a theme on your network.

It's a reflection of my values and interests, I think, more than spirituality — because people don't understand the word spirituality.

[When] I was interviewing [candidates] to be CEO, I'd say, "What's your spiritual practice?" That question threw every person I interviewed. They started blubbering about how they hadn't been to church regularly. I go, "I'm not asking you what your religion is. I mean, what's your spiritual practice? How do you take care of yourself?" That's what I mean when I say spirituality.

The "best of human expression," is what I would call it. We are all searching for the same thing. So it doesn't matter how much money you have, how much square footage you have, how big a movie star you are, how many likes you get, whatever. You want the same thing I want, and that is to be able to have the fullest expression of yourself as a human being — however that shows up for you.

You want that, and I want that.

How has the focus of OWN changed since you launched?

[On The Oprah Winfrey Show,] every single day I was an intentional programmer, only programming things that fit what I thought was my version of being authentic. I would say to the producers, "I cannot participate in an interview where I have to pretend anything."

Because the cameras are like a magnifying glass. You get to see who people really are, particularly long-term. Want to know who somebody really is? Watch them on television for a long time, and it will show up.

My number-one goal all those years was to not do anything that did not feel like it came from a space of authenticity for myself. I would meet with the producers and say to them, "Tell me your intention."

So, when I went to try to build a network and was trying to operate under what is true for me, well, my aperture was too narrow. I needed to have lots of different lanes — not just my lane.

One of the reasons I ended the show is because I just decided I want to talk about what I want to talk about. I don't want to waste my time talking about things that I no longer find meaningful or beneficial to people.

This widening lens included a partnership with Tyler Perry, who now has several shows on OWN. How much credit do you give him for turning the network around?

Well, I think we were on our way to turning it around when Tyler came along. I give him full credit for being the foundation for us to establish scripted television, and for giving us the ratings base we needed to be able to launch other programming. And I give myself credit for being smart enough to say yes to that.

Because Tyler first came to me and said, "Let me help you," and I was like, "No, no, no, no, no."

It's just my nature to not ask for help, or to want other people to help me, because usually the price I have to pay is going to be too high in the end. So, I was reluctant for that reason, for our friendship, and for the fact that, at the time, he was looking at starting his own channel. So I didn't want to be in conflict with what I thought he really wanted.

And he goes, "No, no, no, I can really help you, I can write something for you." And I was like, "We can't afford it. I can't afford to pay for scripted." And he said, "I can do it, and I can do it for less money than anybody else in Hollywood," which he can. Because he can write it, he can direct it, he can produce it, he can light it, he can star in it if he wants to.

So, it worked out?

It worked out. And those shows do very well for us. The Haves and the Have Nots — phenomenal numbers. I think it's the number-one show on Tuesday nights, period, [in our target demo] in all of cable. Has been since it started.

You now have four nights of original programming and more than 15 original series. You're expanding — and returning to TV acting, in Greenleaf. Why this show?

I picked Greenleaf because [creator-executive producer] Craig Wright, who had worked on Lost and Six Feet Under, came to an early viewing of Belief. We ended up having a conversation about his past relationships at a church.

He used to be a preacher, grew up in the church; I started talking about growing up in the church. So we had this conversation about "Wouldn't it be ripe, fertile ground for a series, particularly in a black mega-church?"

What can you tell us about Greenleaf?

It's about a black mega-church in Memphis and all the family dynamics that go on when you're trying to run a major business — which is what the church is — that also has a spiritual base. And you have a dysfunctional family conflict.

My whole career, even when I was a young news reporter, I always wanted to see stories that allowed African Americans to be like everybody else. Like, we go to the grocery store, and we go to church on Sunday, and we have families, and we sit around the table and we have conversations that matter, and some don't matter so much, and we get into arguments.

I wanted to be able to show the human diaspora from a cultural point of view of African Americans that lets people see the deepest part of our humanity.

What role are you playing?

I play the wayward sister who owns a nightclub, who runs a booze club in Memphis.

Diversity in Hollywood has been a hot topic this year, with #oscarssowhite and a recent Annenberg study highlighting some grim statistics. What are your thoughts?

Well, my thoughts are that finally the conversation got cracked wide open. And for any revolution to take place, you've got to first start having the conversation, and everybody get real about what is actually happening. From all of my past experiences with any evolution of change — this is the beginning.

Because it's now out in the open in such a provocative way, it's made a lot more people aware and open to inclusion. We are going to see in the next year or two whether the conversation has actually been able to move us forward in ways that make people think about who's at the table, And not just talk about it.

Has there been any progress? And is TV doing any better than film?

Certainly, television is doing better than film. But it needs to continue. We will have succeeded when there's no longer a need for the conversation.

What else should be done, other than talking about it?

Concrete steps. Exactly what [Selma director] Ava [DuVernay]'s doing on our project Queen Sugar.

She's saying, "I'm looking for all female directors," and making no bones about it. And tweeting about the level of inclusiveness. She did a whole tweet feed the first day of shooting, with a hashtag #inclusivecrew. And that's down to the guy who's doing craft services, to the grip, to the women who are stage-managing.

I mean, being able to say in every part of this art form, there needs to be inclusion — and showing how it can be done. So, it means making a conscious effort.

I used to say, you don't need quotas where you have a conscience. Where you're thinking about, how can I create an opportunity that's going to give somebody a chance who wouldn't have had a chance here? Somebody who's qualified, who wouldn't have had the door open to them if I were not consciously thinking about that.

OWN is now in 80 million homes, and it's coming off its most-watched year. Are you happy with the state of the network, and is it turning a profit yet?

For sure, we're turning a profit. But can I say I am happy? I'm pleased that I am in the part of the climb where I can at least breathe. I'm not doing the happy dance yet. I'll be doing the happy dance when I have programming on every night that our viewers feel is meaningful, and they respond to in a way that says they appreciate what we're trying to do.

I'm really, really, really excited about Greenleaf, not for acting reasons. I just did that because number one, it assured with this first time out that it would actually get done, and, number two, I thought it would be fun.

And is it fun?

What I really enjoy is the production process. And I do mean everything from "That rug's too large and has too many colors in it" to looking at auditions for actors — putting the family together so that it feels like a family and actually works. And all of the behind-the-scenes stuff that for years somebody else was doing for me. Pulling it all together and making it work.

And I love giving opportunities to young actors who wouldn't have had that opportunity. It's almost this feeling — it's [like] calling up an author and saying, "We're going to choose your book at the book club." I love that part.

And I love what's coming with Queen Sugar. I was sitting on my porch with Ava last year. I was reading a book, and she was reading something else, and I said, "I'm reading this book called Queen Sugar. I think — gosh, it feels like it could really be a television series." And she said, "Eh, doubt it. Because you know what it takes to make a television series."

Yeah, I do, kinda. And I said, "You should just read it, Ava." She said "I'm not sure I like the title Queen Sugar?"

I go, "Don't judge a book by its cover." And she ended up reading it — and now just finished shooting Episode 1.02. We're going into filming 1.03 this week. It's going to be hot and fun and really great — it looks like a movie.

You're one of the few black female billionaires in the world. What motivates you to keep working? Is there anything on your bucket list that you haven't accomplished?

I don't have a bucket list. Honestly. Because I live every day like I'm going to blow this one out. And I get excited by the smallest things.

I've been thinking a lot about it lately, because I'm working on a memoir. I think it stems from being content with myself from a very early age, when I didn't have a lot of things to be appreciative of, except just being able to have food and shelter and so forth.

I think what I see missing in the world of striving, striving, striving — and I have been one of those people — is appreciation and contentment. I see a lot of people in this business working, working — but I don't see a lot of satisfaction.

I'm most proud of the fact that I've reached a point where I have true contentment and satisfaction. And I can get that in the smallest things.

I mean, I walk my five dogs every morning, and I can be happy just with new buds coming up through the rocks and appreciating the day. This day. For what it is.

I would say one of my great gifts is that I have learned to consciously live and be fully present in this moment. In the now. And when you can do that, everything's exciting, and you never get bored. So when you're stuck in traffic, you can say, "Whoa, that moment!"

I'm not there yet.

You live in L.A.!

Let's talk about Belief. Discovery is now rolling it out worldwide, and it's available on DVD. How is it doing?

I've been disappointed by numbers before, I've been disappointed by films that didn't work, forever scarred by Beloved.

I'm one of those people who tries to pay attention — because life is speaking to you all the time — and to learn from mistakes. So from the beginning, when I was willing to use my own money — because everybody goes, "You never use your own money" — I said, "This will be a gift." This is my gift offering — capital 0, Offering — to the world. And however it is received, I will be happy with it.

For me, the great joy, literally, is in being able to share the stories. And whoever sees it — however it is received — I know that the spirit in which I am sharing it is to touch, to move, to raise the consciousness, to create an aha, to create a feeling of familiarity and similarity that says, "We are more alike than we are different.”

Although I'm not Catholic and would not be carrying the cross in the street for hours on my shoulder, I can see that what that young boy feels is the same as what I feel when I sit in my garden in silence, you know?

Absolutely.

So, I don't even know what it's doing around the world or what the ratings were, whatever. I never even looked. I said, "I am not going to buy into how many people, and what's the 18 to 49?” I don't care about the 18 to 49 for this. What I really care about is, how many eyes can we get on it? How will it be received?

So I think it continues. I heard it started in South America around Easter time, and I don't know when it plays in South Africa and throughout the world, but the dream for me was to do it. And so it's out there. It's released in the world. And what I feel is that it will be there forever.


For more on Belief and Queen Sugar, click here.

This article originally appeared in emmy Magazine, Issue No. 6, 2016

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