I got quality time with Oprah Winfrey at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. For the launch of OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, Winfrey threw a party in the garden of the Langham Hotel in Pasadena. When she arrived herself, a group of 10 or so journalists gathered around her. Once I managed to introduce myself to her, she grabbed my arm and held it as she answered my questions. That’s got to be the most famous person I’ve ever met, right?
Oprah can hold court anywhere she goes. Her talk show has been so influential over 25 years that it introduced people to spiritual worldviews like The Secret and Eckhart Tolle’s The New Earth. Everyone remembers the thrill of “You get a car, and YOU get a car! Everybody gets a car!” She’s introduced the world to Tyler Perry and exposed horrors of abuse so people everywhere could reach out for help. Now she launches a whole network to bring positivity to television.
Q: What speaks to you about the programs you’ve chosen to be on the air? What would you like to see on the air later?
Oprah Winfrey: Oh, we don’t have time to talk about what I’d like to see. David Zazlov said, “We have 600 hours! Don’t you know, nobody started with 600 new hours!” I go, “But I’m not comparing myself to other people. I’m talking about what I want to see.” If you’re comparing yourself to other people, it’s really great but I would say that my greatest ability still is to live in the same space as the viewer. I am the viewer and I sit in my seat every day as a surrogate viewer and I represent the viewer. So as a viewer, I’m a little frustrated because I want to see more. I want to see more now so where are those shows? We had a meeting before we came down to talk to you guys, I was saying, “As a viewer, I would like to know what’s coming in the channel. I’ve seen Peter Walsh 1000 times. Where’s the lineup that tells me what you’re trying to do or what you’re wanting to do? Where’s my voice as a viewer.” We’re going to try to course correct that but it still is going to take a long time to do.
Q: How are you feeling now about the end of your show?
OW: I feel the same. It is the dearest love of my life and it’s like this love affair I’ve had with it and the audience has responded in kind. I don’t feel sad. I feel like it is time.
Q: Is your last original airing in May or September?
OW: May. The last original will be May 25th. Set your DVRs for the final viewing! Then I’m sure that’ll repeat again in September but the end for me. 63 more shows from this day to the end.
Q: You actually count?
OW: Oh, I’ve been counting since 130. Every day I go, “89!”
Q: Looking back on your original dream, what did you feel on January 1 when OWN launched?
OW: A little out of body. Like really, surreal. Of course, I’ve seen myself on TV thousands of times. So I’m sitting there in the white, and I think, “Shouldn’t have worn the white pants.” That’s the first thing I thought. Then I thought just listening to it and seeing the lineup come up is the first time I actually thought that it was real because of course, I’ve seen every show, looked at the thing, sent the tapes back, “No, I don’t like that, that’s not good enough, take that out.” We started out with a little dumpy short logo. Then I think it was about July we changed the logo. For a long time it was like a doughnut, a little squat thing. Then we’re all sitting and eating one day and I go, “I hate that squat thing.” And they’re going, “What do you mean? Are you saying you don’t like the logo?” I go, “Haaaate it.” So then I was like this summer, we started to revise the whole logo. The reason it’s multicolored is because it is a paint box. I see the network as a paint box.
Q: You go from The Oprah Winfrey Show to The Oprah Winfrey Network. Are you kinda scared by what the next awesome step after this will be?
OW: The word for me is building. I’m leveraging what was into what can be. You know I’ve kept a journal since I was 15 which has been my therapy and my solace, so I can look back over the years of what I was thinking and what I wanted and what the dreams were and all that stuff since I was 15. I remember the time when I wrote down that this was the foundation for something bigger. I just don’t know what the bigger is. I used other people to teach me so when this fame thing first hit me, and it hit suddenly in 1986, I went from nobody knew who I was to everybody knows who you are. You need guidance. People for whom this happens to, you need somebody to help you. Quincy Jones used to say to me, “There needs to be a grace training school for people because what do you do with all that?” So I would call on people like Quincy and Bill Cosby and Maya Angelou. Those were my three. Then later Sidney Poitier. I would use them. How do you handle this or what do you do? Bill Cosby said to me, “One day you’re going to get to the point where you’ve had enough shoes. Then you’ve got to figure out, “Now what are you going to do?” First it’s like, “Oh, let me buy all the shoes.” One day you’re going to get to the point where you have enough shoes. Now what? So that happened to me early on because you’ve only got so much room in your closet.
Q: You only have two feet!
OW: You only have two feet. So now what does this really mean? I think all celebrity, fame, celebrity, whether it’s on this scale or in your neighborhood, who was the great doctor in your neighborhood when we had small communities? It means I can be that. I can do that. So to be able to use that in a way that it lets the people see, I was just saying to them out there. The Ted Williams story, everybody’s like, “Oh, Ted Williams.” What that says is that can happen to you. You can’t be any lower than Ted Williams. You can’t be any lower than sitting on a curb with a sign. So if that can happen to him, it means it can happen to you.
Q: Do you just have to ignore the negative people to continue on the positive path?
OW: Negative criticism has its place, otherwise you wouldn’t do it.
Q: But the haters, do you tune them out?
OW: The haters you don’t pay any attention to but the thoughtful criticism, I’ve seen criticism over the years, not just what I’m saying, I’ve seen criticism I go, “Oh yeah, that’s right.” Early, early, early on in Chicago, I read a critic who said, “She’s not giving the other people a chance to talk.” That literally changed the way I operated. I said, “I can see that. I can see that I’m so anxious to get [my questions in.]” And everybody has been in that situation where you’re talking to people where instead of listening to you, they’re thinking about their next question. So I learned that. That is thoughtful criticism. On the web I was reading all these pages. Some are thoughtful and some are “You took my Dr. G, you bitch, I can’t believe you took away my best Discovery [Health Channel].” I’m not talking to you. Then I’m not talking to you. We have 300 million people in this country and one of the things that Australia taught me was absolutely eye opening for me, was that on the other side of the world, there’s an entire world of people who have been watching you every day who’ve gotten the message and who hear it and want more of it. So I say there’s enough people in the world for the OWN channel and if they want to do a Housewives Channel where you just watch Housewives pull each other’s clothes off and slap each other around all day long, there’s also room for that. The people who want to watch this and are looking for the best of themselves, that’s who I’m talking to. If that’s not what you want to see, I’m not talking to you, and that’s okay. There are 500 other channels you can watch! The problem is everybody’s trying to get everybody and trying to please everybody. I’m not trying to please everybody. I’m only trying to please people who want to hear it.
Q: What do you think Gayle is going to bring to the table as a talk show host?
OW: The reason why we connected as friends when we were 21 and 22, in a station in Baltimore, went home, I had her home with me during the snow storm and we talked all night and have been friends ever since, is because she is the best friend anybody could ever want. She is relatable. She is faaaaaar more connected to pop culture and news and politics and all that stuff. That’s how I know what’s going on. I call her Gayle King Eyewitness News. This is what people are going to do. They’re going to see the best of themselves in Gayle. I think she’s just about the most relatable person there is.
Q: Was it always a given she would have a show on your network?
OW: No. Nope. The only reason there is a show on my network is because the radio show worked so well. My whole emphasis has been to keep the elements of the radio show because she’s best free forming. She’s best live and free forming. She’s best when things can go wrong and living in that space of energy. So I think she’s the most authentic person I’ve ever seen other than myself and has a lot of wonderful qualities that I wish I had. You know, years ago when I was having an argument with Stedman about somebody saying I wasn’t nice about something. I said, “I have to do this.” And he said, “Why?” I said, “Because, you know, I’m a nice person.” He goes, “But you’re not nice.” I go, “What do you mean I’m not nice?” He goes, “Is that what you think you are, nice? You’re a lot of things but I wouldn’t say nice is one of them.” And I go, “Well, if I’m not nice, who is?” He goes, “Now Gayle, Gayle is nice.” Gayle is so nice that yesterday, the guy who was her driver, there was some sandwich place called Jones on Third. So Gayle discovered Jones on Third and bought these sandwiches, loved the sandwiches so much bought two sandwiches for the driver. Then gives the driver who she doesn’t know her e-mail to call her and tell her how he liked the sandwiches. So then last night she’s going, “The driver just sent me this e-mail about the sandwich.” I go, “Why are you giving the driver your e-mail?” But that’s Gayle.
Q: What do you have in your purse?
OW: I don’t have one. I’ve started to travel without one because I used to always travel with one and then I thought, “What am I carrying a purse for?” I’m carrying a purse just so I have a purse. You go looking in your purse and there’s like a little lipstick and there’s, you know, I don’t need it.
Q: From the time you started your career to now, what’s been the most important lesson you’ve learned?
OW: Oh, you know what I was saying to you all today, it’s all about paying attention to your life. Your life is speaking to you. Not just my life. Everybody’s life is speaking to them. When you start paying attention, it’s everywhere. You see answers. You ask a question and it’s answered, and it comes through every source. It comes through somebody sends you an e-mail, there’s an answer. You pay attention to your life so you pay attention to your life and most important pay attention to mistakes because your mistakes are only there to teach you. Your mistakes are not there to say, “You’re a failure, you don’t mean anything, you can’t do it.” Your mistakes are there to say, “Course correct.” That’s the only reason mistakes happen. So the instant you learn from the mistake you are better.
Q: What’s your favorite episode you ever did in 25 years?
OW: I’m going to tell you that next year so I can’t tell you now.
Q: Do you ever see a rerun and go, “I don’t remember that one?”
OW: Oh, all the time. No, all the time my team is talking to me about so and so, so and so show and I go, “Was I there?” All the time.
Q: How soon will you move to L.A. now that you have a network?
OW: Well, I’m coming to L.A. because I was on the 101 for five and a half hours the other night. When I left the all star taping, I left the all star taping at 2:30 and I got home at 8:08. In Santa Barbara. What is that, people? What is that? What is that, you can’t drive in the rain? That’s the answer so I’m going to have to get a place here. I wasn’t thinking I was going to have to. I thought I’d commute from Santa Barbara. Oh, that was the answer the other night. Five and a half hours. First, I read my iPad, I played Scrabble, I meditated. I did everything and every time I’d say to the driver, “Where are we?” he’d say, “Just outside of Ventura, ma’am.” Okay, I go, “That was two hours ago!” “Just outside of Ventura, ma’am.”
Q: Who did you always want to get that you never got?
OW: Susan Smith.
Q: Before you go, I wanted to tell you that I discovered The Secret because it was on your show.
OW: Oh, did you? Good. Use it. It’s the energy you bring to it. You just can’t think a bunch of thoughts. It’s about believing.