Just OWN It: 10 Things You Didn't Know About the Oprah Winfrey Network

Oprah Winfrey may have been the "Queen of All Media," but there was no guarantee when she launched her eponymous network 10 years ago that her devoted fans would follow her there.

By Natalie Finn Jan 01, 2021 3:00 PMTags
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Oprah Winfrey had the wildly successful talk show. No-last-name-necessary recognition. A production company, Harpo, that was her name in reverse. The magazine known simply as O.

What else to do but take over an entire channel and call it the Oprah Winfrey Network?

So that is exactly what she did.

But despite her legion of fans, her show's 47 Daytime Emmy Awards and her eye for promising TV personalities who would go on to their own talk show empires, not to mention Winfrey's signature confidence in the ability to manifest what you want if you put in the work with the universe—there was no guarantee that OWN was going to be a success.

And for awhile after its launch exactly 10 years ago, it wasn't, despite its sparkling pedigree.

Fascinating Facts About Oprah Winfrey

"My vision for OWN is to create a network that inspires our viewers and makes them want to be who they are on their best day," Winfrey stated in August 2010 as her team announced that, though the syndicated Oprah Winfrey Show would be signing off after 25 years in May 2011, the "Queen of All Media" herself would be taking her interviewing talents to OWN with shows such as Oprah's Next Chapter and Master Class.

She would even be making entertainment out of her discerning eye with a show called Your OWN Show: Oprah's Search for the Next TV Star

A lot of name branding, a lot of Oprah onscreen, a lot of money pouring into the endeavor, the most successful daytime talk show ever for cross-promotion? What else does a network need?!

Stars Who Love Oprah

What OWN needed, as it turned out, was time.

It took about two years to find its footing, with Oprah taking over as CEO and COO seven months after the launch. And it wasn't until October 2011, following the premiere of the reality series Welcome to Sweetie Pie's, that they realized they should lean into programming for Black viewers, that—while they had been banking initially on Winfrey's universal appeal—the historically underserved audience would find OWN if it put in the work to get their attention.

"Anytime you have a program that pops like Sweetie Pie's did, you start looking at what drove it," OWN president Erik Logan told Adweek after the show about the St. Louis family behind an expanding soul food restaurant business earned the network's biggest ratings yet. "And we saw that the African-American audience really had a connection with that show...We're going to look at ways to nurture and grow that."

George Burns-Harpo, Inc.

Nurture and grow they did. And on OWN's 10th anniversary, here are 10 things you did not know about the network that Oprah built, slowly but surely:

Building Block of Life

OWN wasn't Oprah Winfrey's first rodeo when it came to launching a network, and not only because she and longtime partner Stedman Graham had been bouncing the idea around since the early 1990s (and she journaled about it, obviously).

She's also a co-founder of Oxygen, which debuted in 2000 as a network dedicated to lifestyle programming tailored for the interests of the modern woman. But while her guests-tell-all series Oprah After the Show ran from 2002 until 2006, Winfrey has said that she wasn't involved in content development and was only on the board of directors for the duration of a few meetings. (NBCUniversal bought Oxygen in 2007 and the network's general tenor remained the same until they went all in on true crime and related programming in 2017.)

With OWN, she told The Hollywood Reporter in 2008, "I am the chairman, I will be choosing the CEO, and I will be involved in every single element of the programming."

Re-Charted Territory

OWN took over the cable space previously occupied by Discovery Health, which launched in 1998 but after a few years could only offer so much programming about plastic surgery and harrowing baby deliveries to last in the long run. In 2007, new Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav saw that Discovery Health was underperforming, so the company (which then owned the likes of Animal Planet and TLC in addition to its eponymous network and since 2018 has acquired Food Network, HGTV and Travel Channel) looked to see how it could right that ship.

The answer: a merger with Winfrey's Harpo Studios on a new network curated by the "Favorite Things" tastemaker herself. 

Zaslav told the New York Times he got inspired while flipping through one of his wife's magazines.

They announced the future endeavor on Jan. 15, 2008, with the intent to premiere in mid-2009, but ultimately wouldn't launch for two more years after multiple delays and $500 million invested by Discovery to get the show(s) on the road.

OWNership Issues

As Jan. 1, 2011, approached, there were doubters (including some inside the company) who still thought they wouldn't be be ready for the launch. According to the New York Times, even Winfrey had considered exiting the project as recently as early 2010.

"The first year, I'd go to meeting after meeting and I'd see all these sorts of promo materials put together of what OWN could be," she told the Times. "Finally I said: 'I'm tired of talking about what it can be; I want us to actually do something.'"

Winfrey had hooked up with Discovery before she made the decision to end her revered talk show, which had been on the air since 1986, and her new partners were a little dismayed that she wasn't going to be taking the Oprah Winfrey Show to OWN. "But I felt like the show had its day, its moment, its time," the host explained. Still, she agreed to increase the amount of time she'd spend on camera from her initially contracted 35 hours a year to 70.

She told the Times on the eve of Oprah's final taping in May 2011 that 300 people from the 464 who worked on her talk show would be making the move to OWN, because that's the capacity they had at the moment. But eventually, she added, the network would be "wider and broader than what I have now."

Magical Realism

With OWN only attracting an average of 180,000 viewers a day in the first quarter of 2012 (despite sporadic spikes, such as when her sit-down with members of Whitney Houston's family following the singer's death brought in 3.5 million), Winfrey—who may be a champion of the power of positive thinking but is also nothing if not a savvy businesswoman—was simultaneously trying to get those numbers up and steel herself in case the network folded.

"Had I known that it was this difficult," she told BFF Gayle King on CBS This Morning that April, "I might have done something else." And, if OWN ultimately didn't work, "I will move on to the next thing."

But while she of course always has other irons in the fire, there was no need to move on. Winfrey ultimately helped turn the ship around by simply doing what she had always done best—be herself and spend a lot of hours interviewing famous people on TV. And listen.

Her January 2013 exclusive sit-down with disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, which aired as a two-part special, was watched by roughly 28 million people, including 15 million people outside the U.S., according to OWN. Another 800,000 tuned in online (a number that would probably be exponentially higher today). The ubiquitous "struggling" that was often applied to OWN fell by the wayside, and the term "turning point" took its place.

But guess whose foresight was 20/20? Back in 2010, Winfrey told the New York Times, "By 2013, we should be cracking."

And in 2013, she told Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live that they were "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."

Tyler Perry Productions

OWN's foray into scripted programming began in May 2013 with the long-running melodrama The Haves and the Have Nots, the first fruit of what proved to be a most beneficial collaboration with Winfrey's longtime friend Tyler Perry—whose exclusive development deal with the network is definitely part of the what-saved-OWN conversation.

Over the years the original Perry productions have included Love Thy NeighborThe Paynes and If Loving You Is Wrong, the last of which just ended last June after five seasons. OWN also brought his sitcom For Better or Worse into the fold after it was canceled by TBS and it ran for three more seasons.

And while the massive Viacom deal he signed in 2017 means he's since left OWN to divert his attention to creating shows for BET and other platforms in that corporate family, Perry and Winfrey remain dear friends and collaborators, the latter honoring the former when he received the Governors Award at the 2020 Emmys.

The future of The Haves and the Have Nots, which still has a couple of episodes of season eight on the schedule for January—and, more importantly, which continues to pull in upward of 1 million viewers—remains up in the air.

The Gestation Process

"I'm prepared for all the critics, I'm prepared for all the naysayers and the ya-da-ya's," Winfrey confidently told the New York Times a month before OWN's debut. "The real truth is this: Everything I've ever done has prepared me for this moment, for this launch."

Her biggest concern, she said, was making sure that she—let alone millions of other people—could find OWN on their cable lineups, and her website posted a channel guide and a countdown clock. (It was in 80 million households on day one.)

"I look at this launch as the birthing of a baby, not the raising of a child. It's a long-term process," Winfrey acknowledged, "and I have the vision to see what this network can be in three years, in five years, in 10 years, as an institution of hope and inspiration." And, "I'm about as calm as a person who's about to give birth to such a humongous baby can be."

Oprah's Only Human

But as it turned out, the icon who had come from nothing and became everything wasn't as prepared as she thought she was to struggle. Instead, the possibility of failure weighed heavily on her, and—predictable as it was—she could sense a certain smugness between the lines from certain observers who thought she'd aimed too high this time.

In 2012, with OWN's future not guaranteed while she was off shooting The Butler, her first live-action movie role since Beloved in 1998, the stress proved too much and in hindsight Winfrey realized that she was having a breakdown.

"In the beginning, it was just sort of speeding and a kind of numbness and going from one thing to the next thing to the next thing," she recalled to Access Hollywood in 2013 (the year OWN started turning a profit). "I will tell you when I realized that I thought, 'All right, if I don't calm down I'm gonna be in serious trouble.' I was in the middle of doing voiceovers, you know? And I remember closing my eyes in between each page because looking at the page and the words at the same time was too much stimulation for my brain."

"I mean, I wasn't ready to go run naked in the streets," she added. "Let's make that very clear. But I had reached a point where I just couldn't take in any more stimulation. OK? That's what I meant by that."

She acknowledged on Watch What Happens Live in 2013, talking about OWN's initial low ratings, "Nobody was more surprised than I was about that." But, she continued, "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.'"

Winfrey also said to People of the experience, "Failure is a great teacher. I knew this intellectually. But it's another thing if you're living it." Graham, who had written down the name "Oprah Winfrey Network" all the way back in 1992, was supportive in all the right ways, telling 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.'"

The Sweet Life

By the first quarter of 2016, OWN's audience had grown by 30 percent over the course of two years to an average of 537,000 people a day. So, it felt like a good time to expand the network's horizons.

The first two series not created by Perry, Craig Wright's Greenleaf and Ava DuVernay's Queen Sugar, premiered within months of each other in 2016. Winfrey appeared in 11 episodes of Greenleaf, which wrapped up its five-season run last June and has a spin-off in the works, and is an executive producer on Queen Sugar, which has been renewed for a fifth season.

"I made it known in the industry that I wanted to do a show and was being approached by some of the notables that most people would want to do a show with, but when your friend owns a network, you know, it might be good to just go over there," DuVernay quipped to The Hollywood Reporter when Queen Sugar, about three estranged siblings left to run their family's sugarcane farm in rural Louisiana after their father's death, premiered.

More importantly, the pals were on the same page about the changes they wanted to see in the entertainment industry as a whole.

Talking about the importance of real inclusion in Hollywood—rather than the ever-vague push for "diversity"—DuVernay said, "Forward-thinking people and allies of this cause within the industry have the common sense to know that this is systemic. There needs to be more done than applauding one or two people who make it through your door."

Added Winfrey, "I used to use the word 'diversity' all the time. 'We want more diverse stories, more diverse characters…' Now I really eliminated it from my vocabulary because I've learned from her that the word that most articulates what we're looking for is what we want to be: included. It's to have a seat at the table where the decisions are being made."

Winfrey told Vogue in 2017, "The real truth is that we're in the best place ever. We were able to use Tyler's audience to build a great foundation for scripted television, and now I am moving into an elevated premium scripted storytelling in a way that I have been dreaming of for a long time."

A Shocking Encore

The show that helped give OWN direction, Welcome to Sweetie Pie's, ended in 2018 after 100 episodes—and some major drama on the home front.

On March 15, 2016, 21-year-old Andre Montgomery Jr., grandson of family matriarch and Sweetie Pie's owner Robbie Montgomery, was shot and killed while visiting a recording studio in St. Louis. Robbie knew Andre had his issues, but she had taken him under her wing in hopes of seeing him thrive, and she was so proud when he graduated high school in 2013. 

"We tried to give him a better life and he lost his life," Robbie said, sitting alongside a number of family members for an OWN interview after Andre's murder, the emotional aftermath of his death having been included in the show. Her son and Andre's uncle, Tim Nelson, added, "We've lost the entire family to violence." For men raised primarily by women, as the boys in his generation were, the draw of the streets was an unfortunate real thing, he said, "'cause you're around other men...We don't have a lot of positive examples of guys going to college and getting a job and being successful." (At 17, Tim was sentenced to 10 years in prison for armed robbery, but seemed intent on turning his life around and went to work at his mother's restaurant. Robbie was seen on the show firing him in 2012 for hitting two other workers at the restaurant, including Andre. Robbie later sued her son in June 2016 to stop him from infringing on the Miss Sweetie brand to operate three other restaurants, but he most recently was co-owner of a Sweetie Pie's location in Jackson, Miss.)

Talking about the widespread impact of gun violence in their community, Robbie, whose sister Linda lost a son some years back too, continued, "And what about the family? People don't realize, when the young men go to jail, it affects the family. To pick up a gun is easy. But to take somebody's life, that you can't give and can't give it back, that's devastating."

The family tragedy turned Shakespearean in August 2020 when federal prosecutors filed murder-for-hire charges against Tim, who had visited the scene of the crime with his mother on Welcome to Sweetie Pie's, saying, "Since Andre's passing I haven't gone through this part of the city. Real

He has pleaded not guilty.

All according to the criminal complain obtained by the Riverfront Times: Authorities allege that Tim took out $450,000 in life insurance policies against his nephew in 2014 and then, while living in California, conspired with a Memphis-based exotic dancer to get rid of the young man. The woman, Terica Ellis, stared contacting Andre on Instagram and arranged to travel to St. Louis to meet him. He texted her the address of the house where ended up getting killed. Records from a burner phone put Terica at the scene and her first call wasn't to police, but to Tim, who investigators allege had paid her $10,000 for her role in the alleged scheme.

A week after his nephew's murder, the complaint continued, Tim started trying to collect on the life insurance, though he ultimately never provided the documentation required to get the money. He and Terica were charged with conspiracy to use interstate commerce facilities in commission of murder-for-hire, resulting in death. She has also pleaded not guilty; both were ordered jailed until trial. (Tim is also charged with conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud.)

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has also reported that Andre was originally considered a suspect in a June 2015 burglary at Robbie's home, in which someone made off with $220,000 in cash and jewelry. In an interview with police in March 2016, Andre—who had been living out of town since the burglary and agreed to return to St. Louis for questioning—denied any involvement, but said his uncle, Tim, could have been behind it. Four days later, Andre was dead.

Waiel Rebhi Yaghnam, Tim's insurance agent, has been charged with identity theft and wire and mail fraud, and in November authorities announced a fourth suspect who received $5,000 two days after Andre was shot, Travell Anthony Hill, had also been charged with conspiracy to commit murder for hire, resulting in death.

You Get a Show, and You Get a Show...

When OWN launched, a slew of reality programming and talk shows were in the works featuring an array of prominent names, from Gayle King and Rosie O'Donnell to Shania Twain and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York.

Two series from that first year remain on the network: the Winfrey-hosted Super Soul Sunday, a three-time Daytime Emmy winner for Outstanding Special Class Series, now also available in podcast form; and Home Made Simple, a longtime TLC show that moved to OWN in October 2011 and is now hosted by Laila Ali.

Oprah PresentsMaster Class, which premiered when OWN did, on Jan. 1, 2011, with Winfrey interviewing Jay-Z, lasted until 2018.

"I was so misled in my thinking," Winfrey admitted to Vogue in 2017. "I thought I was going to create a network that was Super Soul Sunday all day long. I thought people... I thought I was going to bring this spiritual consciousness–awakening channel! And I soon learned: Ain't nobody care about that. And the people told me: We'll listen to you on Sunday, but that's it."

JoJo Whilden/Courtesy of OWN

While the cable business is more fraught than ever, and viewers' changing habits as far as how they watch have to constantly be factored in alongside what they watch, OWN's early growing pains have long since made it a place where adaptability is the order of the day. And Winfrey figured that out quickly.

"When I was doing the Oprah show all those years, I was basically doing shows for myself and my producers; whatever was going on in our lives, we would sit around and talk about what we thought was important," the billionaire mogul reflected to Variety in 2018. "What I realized is when you're doing a whole network, you need to speak to whoever is willing to listen."

She continued, "Fortunately for me, the African American audience followed me from the The Oprah Winfrey Show, so I learned to speak to who was listening, which has been one of my greatest lessons as a programmer for television."