Oprah, OWN toppers optimistic after tough calls

Winfrey, Salata, Logan speak to Variety about net's future

When Harpo Studios vets Sheri Salata and Erik Logan took the reins of OWN this time last year, the network was seemingly in free fall, with weak ratings driving media and Wall Street speculation that the Discovery and Oprah Winfrey joint venture was not long for this world. The pair have since spearheaded an overhaul of the channel’s programming and brand strategy that has stabilized the cabler’s viewership base and greatly improved its long-term prognosis. Winfrey and the OWN prexies spoke with Variety’s Stuart Levine about the challenges of programming OWN and the importance of upping the Oprah volume on its air.

Stuart Levine: What are you doing now that wasn’t being done a year ago?

Sheri Salata: I don’t think there was a strategy or plan. Scheduling needed some alignment, Oprah wasn’t on the network yet, programming wasn’t on brand, and there was nothing on the network that had Oprah’s essence. I think we were able to do that by October, at least start to put some things on the screen that if you happen to catch it you say, “Yeah, that feels Oprah-like.” And we were primarily just gearing up for the “Oprah’s Next Chapter” premiere in January. We did a season of “Oprah’s Lifeclass,” which was great, and we started to feel like “OK, Oprah’s coming to our network.” We launched “Next Chapter” in January and saw how broad that invitation was and how excited viewers would get to come in for that interview. Once we got settled down into that rhythm and strategy, we began to see all kinds of opportunities to do the same on other nights.

Are you happy with where you are now?

Oprah Winfrey: The truth is, I’m never comfortable until I reach a point where I say, “Hah, we did it!” What I am comfortable about is that we’re putting one foot in front of the other and building one hour and night at a time. We’re building a foundation for years to come. We’re a young network, and it takes time. I’m encouraged in how far we’ve come and believe we are headed in the right direction.

OWN has seen its biggest ratings spikes from Oprah’s big interview gets, like the Whitney Houston family interview and the Kardashian interview. Will that remain a big part of your strategy? It’s a different approach from what you did initially with “Oprah’s Next Chapter.”

OW: What we found is that my original idea of exploring the world and bringing shared experiences to people wasn’t met with as much response as talking to contemporary people that the audience would relate to. I wanted to go to India and China, but the audience didn’t respond to that as well. I’ve been able to bring interviews with interesting people and compelling stories that we, as a culture, want to know more about. Doing a weekly show gives me a time to create other programming, like “Lifeclass” and “Super Soul Sunday,” which is my baby and is on point and on brand — about both changing people’s lives and dropping pieces of light into their lives. I’m working as hard as ever and don’t see myself slowing down any time soon.

Erik Logan: I think if you measured over time the consistency of “Oprah’s Next Chapter” on Sundays — one of the most competitive nights on television — it really legitimizes the reason for her having this network. I mean, she can aggregate an audience.

Do you feel like you have enough good shows to build on the base that Oprah brings? You’ve had some traction with shows like “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s” and “Our America With Lisa Ling.”

EL: We’re certainly more confident than when we walked in. We had to stop doing things that put us in a hole. Some of the programming that was in our development pipeline that was coming our way was not on brand, so we made the very hard decision of killing a lot of things and immediately focusing on putting things into the pipeline.

SS: This network has to have a wider range, more talent and more hit shows. “Lisa Ling’s Our America” encourages Erik and me. It’s on brand, and it rates. … What you are going to see, and what was missing last July when nothing was on brand, is a broader base of more (comedy), more entertainment, more guilty pleasures that still work for the OWN brand.

OW: Iyanla Vanzant’s new show “Iyanla, Fix My Life” is the best thing I’ve seen in the genre of reality TV that helps people. I showed it to my best friend Gayle, who watches everything and thought the same thing.

There’s a lot of reality-centric networks out there. Other than Oprah, what can viewers get on OWN that they can’t get other places?

SS: That is certainly our challenge. The expectations are that we going to break new ground. Do we have the total game-changer (program) yet? We’re working on it. I would say we have probably cracked part of the code with our viewer for a two-way interaction that’s tangible and real.

Looking at your competition, the recent trend seems to be that reality networks such as Bravo and E! have scripted shows in development. Is that something that you see happening at OWN?

SS: We’re really open to that, and it feels like that could be a really interesting space for us.

Outside of the programming, what other changes did you make when you became presidents? OWN has obviously seen a lot of executive turnover.

EL: When Oprah became CEO, the first thing we saw was an opportunity to really align all the companies. We had an OWN culture, a Harpo culture and a culture of working with our partners at Discovery. Job One was really to bring this partnership that we had into an alignment and start addressing how we can channel the power of this brand onto the screen.

Do you feel like you have the right executive team in place now?

EL: We feel really good about the team we have today. We’ve made hard decisions in terms of staffing, and you hope you don’t have to do it again. We think we really have optimized our business to leverage the best from Discovery and the best from Harpo, and we feel that we’ve really got that locked down.

When OWN was struggling, did you ever have concerns about Discovery pulling back on its support?

EL: Absolutely not. Actually, it felt a little bit of the opposite. The more intense that some of that got, the more supportive (Discovery CEO) David Zaslav and Oprah became.

How is the network going to be different five years from now?

EL: We’re hoping that we can answer that really well on our two-year anniversary. Listen, we’re not gonna get too far ahead of ourselves. I think what has got us to where we are today has been a laser focus on what’s right in front of us, focusing on our programming and our collaboration with our partners. I don’t see that changing. We want to continue to find ways to aggregate and attract an audience, and so we’re going to continue to try different types of shows and different programming.