Winfrey looks back on the successes and missteps that led her to OWN
Describing the road to her OWN network, Oprah Winfrey said Thursday that she "made a a big mistake" promising her show would be "change-your-life television."
She told the Television Critics Association she came up with the approach 10 or 12 years ago, after viewers told her she had changed their lives — but later decided it wasn't for her to say she could.
Winfrey also said she was not overly concerned with OWN's ratings — which drop off significantly when she isn't on the air — because she's targeting her core audience for now, not everyone. The network has a strong focus on self-improvement — but, notably, doesn't promise to change anyone's life.
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She joked that half of its shows may fail — "It's an ongoing process, and I trust the process" — but said she would continue to learn from the missteps.
"Every mistake that I made, I was listening," she said.
Oprah's discussion of "change-your-life TV" was one of the first things she discussed in a wide-ranging talk that covered almost her entire career, including her early dream of guest-hosting "Good Morning America." She said an agent at the time told her it would never happen because "there aren't going to be any more black people on network television. They've already got Bryant Gumbel."
She added: "I let that agent go."
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Winfrey also declared herself a fan of Anderson Cooper, who will take over many of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" timeslots when her show leaves the air in September. Asked if he could be the next Oprah, she said: "The next Oprah? No. The next Anderson, yes."
Speaking in a self-reflective, soothing tone, Winfrey turned just a few questions from reporters into a lengthy look back on her life and the process that led to the creation of OWN. A master at playing to her audience, she told the roomful of reporters and critics that a critic had helped her realize she was wrong to promise to change people's lives.
She said the idea first came to her because viewers would tell her she had helped them.
"I started to try to hear that and not just dismiss it, and I said well, what actually changed in your life? And people told me all the various things that they had done: I went back to school, got my degree, I got another job, I stopped beating my kids … I got out of a bad marriage because of you. Any number of things that people were inspired to do by watching somebody on our show and seeing themselves in that person.
"I came back to my team and said you know, maybe there's something to this whole change-your-life thing. And so we started the new season calling it that and noted immediately the pushback from some of you probably in this room."
She added: "I read one critic actually that did a really nice analysis of who was I to try to change somebody's life? And in reading that passage I thought there's some truth to that … And what I realized is that's not for me to say. That's for somebody else to say."