UPDATE FRIDAY 2 AM: Oprah is all about carefully controlling her image at all times. But not this week when she made the media rounds to promote her return to the big screen in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. During the process she made several public revelations about OWN that could complicate Discovery chief David Zaslav’s current spin campaign that her cable channel is no longer a disaster. First, Oprah told People Magazine that last summer she suffered “the symptoms of a nervous breakdown” and reached her “breaking point” because her Oprah Winfrey Network was struggling very publicly. Tonight, she told host Andy Cohen on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live that her biggest personal ‘aha’ moment would have to be last year when she was “getting all the schadenfreude from the media cause OWN wasn’t where I wanted it to be at the time.”
Zaslav’s joint venture with Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Inc, OWN had a wobbly 2011 start and weathered more problems in 2012 even though Discovery advanced it hundreds of millions of dollars. (Exactly $509M total as of June 30th of this year and, while Discovery isn’t required to lend any more, it might do so if needed, according to Zaslav.) Oprah told People magazine she had a meltdown last summer because “people were counting me out… After 25 years of being No. 1, I had become accustomed to success. I didn’t expect failure. I was tested and I had to dig deep.” She said “the schadenfreude was very painful for me, because I had never experienced it. I thought, ‘Do I not get credit for the 25 years? What have I gotten myself into?’”
Oprah revealed to People that during an interview she was conducting with anti-African child slavery activist Jason Russell (videomaker of KONY 2012), “Jason was talking about having a nervous breakdown and I was thinking, ‘I have those symptoms’.” A few day later she was preparing to record voice-overs for a couple of her shows on OWN when she hit a breaking point. “I remember closing my eyes while I was reading. I thought, ‘I cannot have another thing enter my brain.’ I needed to pull back.” After years of advising viewers how to face a crisis head-on, “this forced me not to just talk the talk. Failure is a great teacher. I knew this intellectually. But it’s another thing if you’re living it.” Winfrey said her longtime pal Stedman Graham told her, “You can’t even think about quitting… You have been in cruise control. It’s gonna turn around, but you’ve gotta do the work.”
Oprah acknowledged to Cohen that the network’s programing and ratings struggles were humbling. “Nobody was more surprised than I was about that. You have to hunker down. There’s no such thing as failure: it’s God telling you to move in another direction… All these years I’ve been telling people to hang in there, to hold on to their dreams, be steadfast in their vision … and I went, ‘Oh, now I get to walk that walk, and not just talk it.’”
She claimed to Cohen that OWN is “on the rise and making money — and let me just tell you, it’s so much more fun to make money than to lose it.” Her boss Zaslav said the same thing in late July: that OWN has become cash flow positive, meaning that it’s “starting to pay down the investment Discovery has made in the venture”. As Deadline’s David Lieberman reported, Zaslav’s company attributes the financial growth to the higher fees that pay TV distributors pay for OWN vs its predecessor Discovery Health. In addition, they say ad sales improved considerably with the addition of shows from Oprah pal Tyler Perry’s Have And Have Nots and Love Thy Neighbor. Zaslav says that OWN’s “positive cash flow generation should continue to increase” with new shows including Perry’s third series, For Better Or For Worse which makes its debut this fall.
PREVIOUS THURSDAY 10 PM: For days Cohen – a self-professed Oprah fanatic - had been teasing her appearance on his talk show. One reason Oprah has never done Watch What Happens Live until tonight is that Cohen’s all about subjecting guests to embarrassing games and girls-night-out drinks. (“I’m having a Fresca-quila. Do you want to taste it? I’m clean,” he asked her.) Tonight, Cohen asked her to screech his name in the way she used to do with guests on her syndicated talk show. She did that. “I’m glad I brought two pair of suit pants,” Cohen deadpanned. He also asked her to slap him while reading the same line in The Butler that she’d delivered while slapping one of the actors. She did that, too. He loved it.
About Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Cohen asked Oprah whether her role was tougher than the one she played in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. “There’s no comparison. That was almost 27 years ago … and at the time nobody knew who I was. It was easier to be on screen. Nobody was saying, ‘Gee, that’s Oprah.’ This was harder this time for me, because I’ve worked 25 years and I am Oprah, and people see me as Oprah. So to do a movie and have people not see you as Oprah — that’s hard.” When presented with a quote from her Butler co-star Terrence Howard (about doing a love scene with her “tig ol’ bitties”, Oprah chuckled, “It’s OK – because they really are big.”
A questioner on the phone asked if Winfrey had ever considered making a movie about her life. “Oh no. I would not consider a movie about my life. My life is basically boring,” she insisted. Yet moments before, she told Cohen about writing her autobiography, “I don’t want to name-drop here but Nelsen Mandela did say to me that he thought I should do it one day. … He said, ‘You should do it for your own record; you should get the record straight’.” Cohen noted she’d never commented on that 2010 Kitty Kelly biography about her. “No. And I still wont,” said Oprah, causing the temperature in the room to drop 10 degrees. “Great,” Cohen responded nervously.