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Conversations Magazine Feb./March 2017

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Friday, June 21, 2013

A Conversation with Sheri Salata, President of the Oprah Winfrey Network

by Marianne Schnall

Marianne Schnall: I would just like to say that I almost feel like I know you from watching all the Season 25: Behind the Scenes episodes, so I have a real sense of not only what an incredible person you are, but how key and important you were to The Oprah Winfrey Show and now to OWN, so thank you so much.

Sheri Salata: Oh, my pleasure and thank you for the compliment. That's very nice.

MS: What is the history behind OWN? What inspired Oprah to found her own network?

SS: Let me think how I see that through my lens – I would say that right before she made her final decision to end The Oprah Show at 25, 25 was feeling good. 25 felt like a good number to have been able to grow and build that platform and have such an impact for 25 years, that felt good. As you can guess, if you have watched Season 25, a daily syndicated show is really challenging. It's challenging schedule-wise, it's challenging to continue year after year to raise the bar. And I think at a certain point you're ready to spread your wings and do something else. So when she got the call from David Zaslav at Discovery, I think she was very intrigued - she's a person who would say God has a bigger dream for you than you could dream for yourself. When that call came in, as we were talking about when we would sunset the show, I think it felt very much like a divine path. Like a divine opportunity. And when you have an opportunity to take the work we've done and then try to create something new in cable and expand that, I think that was very intriguing for her.

MS: How would you describe the mission and vision for OWN?

SS: Here's how I would describe it, and we are on the climb to get there, but I think it's not too far away from the mission and vision of The Oprah Show, I think it's just expanded. And we would always say we are here to entertain, we are here to inform, we are here to enlighten. And from crazy makeovers and big stars to 200 adult men who are willing to stand up and say they were molested as boys and to free a male audience and the women who love men who are struggling with it as adults. It kind of that! It's really that same thing. And I think what energizes us so much is that to be able to take everything Discovery knows about a successful cable business and successful cable series that resonate with viewers and then to take the Oprah lens and her experience in how she connects and engages with people and marry the two and align the two to move forward, that's what we're all about doing right now.

MS: What has the experience been like for you and Oprah, in terms of founding and running a network?

SS: I can speak it since...I feel like we're going to say we announced it in July, but it felt more like August. I think I took a little snooze after the finale of the Oprah Show and here we were, talking about it and planning about it and kind of dreaming about it - like, where do we go from here? I would say the experience is expansive. Very expansive. It is like the world is your oyster - you get to innovate, you get to create, you get to try things. And I would say the learning curve – I think we’re all, as producers - because I don't really feel like an executive, to tell you the truth. That doesn't really feel like that's in my energy field. I always feel like a producer. To be on this growth curve when I came off doing something, sitting in the EP chair for five years, is like on a rocket ride. And the innovative things that we can try on this network – which, you know, we had done some things like that on the Oprah Show - we were the first people to bring Skype into a show on a daily basis like that when you weren't necessarily covering a war. But to really break that loose and say in every way we are going to continue to try to innovate. We want to do shows that resonate with people. We want ratings. But as we do this, we're going to try to innovate. We're going to try to do some things that nobody else has done. So that is very energizing to me.

MS: I don't know who I was talking to, but what came out of my mouth recently was that OWN was not just a network, it was a movement. I feel like it’s part of an evolutionary movement to create a shift in human consciousness, if that's not too bold a thing to say.

SS: It's not too bold, and I would have stated that as our mission, but I would expect that would sound too highfalutin. I think that is exactly what we're about. It's all how you define it too. What I like personally, as a seeker myself, and actively working on evolving my consciousness, is I like being able to turn a channel on Sunday morning and watch interviews with people like Deepak, or Wayne Dyer, I love that conversation in that space. I love being able to watch an audience engage and show their stories on Lifeclass - that's really great for me, too. I'm also keenly aware and again, this was one of the biggest lessons that I learned when I was EP'ing the Oprah Show, that I would watch viewer comments and responses and I could see that some of the stuff that I thought was less pointed in evolving consciousness, that was broader, was actually impacting a huge amount of people in the way that I hadn't thought it would. Like I would read something from somebody, and I spend a lot of time with viewer's comments on OWN and a lot of time reading the social media stuff. But like, "I was having a terrible day. And I'm really struggling with my son. I saw Miss Robbie on Sweet Pie's. She's taking the bull by the horns, but she's still loves her family and she's trying to grow a business and keep her family together." And I thought, I always have to remember that - that everybody's at a different level and what's really key for Oprah, with this network, is that we make sure that all levels are covered. Even people, who literally, would watch Lifeclass 24 hours a day, are as important to us as the people who get something out of Sweetie Pie's. So that’s the balance and it's a delightful opportunity to reach everybody.

MS: I watched the Oprah's Next Chapter on Gloria Steinem, who is one of the co-founders of the Women's Media Center, and I don't know if you know this, she's also somewhat of a personal mentor of mine. She just hosted a fundraiser for the organization I run, Feminist.com. I thought the Oprah’s Next Chapter episode on her was fantastic and it was great seeing both Oprah and Gloria together. What do you think about the state of women around the world today, in terms of: how do you see OWN as filling a need you see in today's women, as both a voice for women and a positive influence?
SS: Well, clearly there's a void. Clearly there is a void in how women are engaged and connected with on television. She is one of your personal mentors - I did not know that, but I am not surprised by that. I will tell you the fact that Gloria herself was very pleased with the episode meant the world to me. I would say that our opportunity, without wearing a sandwich board saying that we're about the evolution of consciousness and empowerment of women - that is definitely what we're about. So when we're looking for series or shows, we're trying to find women who stand in their shoes. That whether we speak it directly or whether you get it from watching something - I just looked at something the other day where there was a really strong female character and a lot of entertaining shenanigans around her and I thought, wow, look at that. There's yet another strong female character of a woman who has worked hard to develop herself, so that she can impact the lives of other women and even if it's wrapped in entertainment, that is really going to resonate with people. So I think we have a huge opportunity there. I would say down the road, the vision would be conferences on television and on a digital platform, simulcasting, finding a way to bring some of the female thought leaders from the United States and around the world and giving them a space where they can speak to a larger audience. Those kinds of things are all on our vision board.

MS: I know Oprah’s main audience has been primarily women but I loved seeing so many men in the Lifeclass audiences, as well as the segments with Steve, and all the male guest teachers Oprah has been including on Lifeclass like Tony Robbins and Deepak Chopra. I think that’s also very important, because men need this too. Men need to be able to embrace who they authentically are and Steve needs to be able to cry on television. I think that is one of the important messages…

SS: God, I am so - you got it! You got it. That is so great to hear.

MS: I absolutely do get it. In fact, I am feeling almost magnetically drawn right now to what OWN is doing - I feel such synergy with the mission of OWN, and I think it has such huge potential, so please let me know anything at all I can do to help. Without being hokey, it makes me feel hopeful about the future of humanity.

SS: Let me just say this, the Jane Fonda Master Class, one of the highest rated Master Classes, which is about calling in the tribe and there's no question that we speak to women, but what we're really trying to speak to is a spirit, an energy field, whether you're young or old or anything. Whatever your external labels are, if we can continue to get our offerings out there and serve them up with the intentions of our mission, and continue to gather the tribe for these conversations and to share in things together – I will say that our little secret mission is that at the end, everybody is a Lifeclass teacher. That really is what we're about here. That's really the way you can help us. In every minute, we are trying to figure out how we make sure that people are aware and have specifics about what we're offering. That's the best you can do!

MS: You've had such an impressive career and you worked your way up the ranks with Oprah. What advice do you have for women on work ethics and success and following your own dreams?

SS: Well, the truth is my path to Harpo was very zig-zaggy and filled with lots of disappointment and a little despair. So I would say that my naive belief that I was going to have my whole thing figured out by the time I was 25, I was schooled on something else. But I will say that once I really energetically connected with the fact that I wanted to do work that made a difference in people's lives and I really wanted it to be in T.V. and I really understood that while I could appreciate my career in advertising as a producer, and I could be grateful for the things I learned along the way, that really nothing else would do. And that's when amazing things happened and doors opened up.

I would say that never once, one single day, has this ever felt like a job. Of course, in part, because I work for Oprah and it's every bit as amazing and incredible and life expanding as you can imagine - but even more so I think it was something that clicked in me that I was never going to look at what I offered every day to the world, through my work, as a job. That requires me to continue to evolve myself. If I focus on doing that, my own evolution, as a human, on the planet, then everything else kind of falls into place. And if I stay, even in the midst of - there's nothing harder than production. There was nothing harder than that last season of the Oprah Show. And now I have new opportunities. In it all there are such gifts and if I don't, every night, kind of go through it and keep wowing myself about it, I would lose the magic of it. So I would say that what I think I do best, is work on myself and in that, I realize it's never going to be about me in a moment, it really is going to be about having the people who work with me, or for me, begin to feel the way I do about it. And help guide and lead them on that, because I think that is the life altering vision of the role work can have in your life. And you're also surrounded by people like that all the time, so you know what I'm saying. The faster you can understand that, I think the more rewarding any experience that you're having around work or career or profession, becomes.

MS: I know that one of the messages of shows like Lifeclass and that Oprah always talks about is it's about self-care and taking the time to go within. One of the things I can't help but wonder, because I see how busy you must be, how do you personally keep yourself centered and balanced, which I think is a challenge for many women?

SS: It's very challenging and I'm not always successful at it, because the world calls. I'm looking right now at my to-do list as I talk to you. Just this morning, there's 20 things on it and I'm going to have to manage my anxiety that I'm not going to get through it all. That is definitely where I continue to evolve and grow. I meditate, it helps a lot. On the days I don't make time for it, I can totally see the difference. I try to be very clear on what really matters to me, but I would say in this particular time of the network's development, that is going to be a challenge for me for awhile.

MS: What are your ultimate hopes and dreams for OWN?

SS: Oh my goodness - and I can see it. I can see it. We're on the mountain and I can see it. It is really that we have created a platform that engages and connects with people and the real conversation that matters, which is everything we've talked about. Which is that there's something that can speak to everyone, but most importantly the people who are really ready for the shift. Who have made a decision to be a part of it. I think when we put on Lifeclass and it's not just 200 countries, it's every country and we have teachers on television, and on the web, from countries all over the world, I can see it. I can see those conversations. I can see it happening. When people say, wow, OWN is the most innovative, engaging network that's ever been, I think I'll be like, ‘okay!’ that's where we were going.

MS: Obviously, you know Oprah so incredibly well – is there something you would want to say about her or about Oprah's spirit and passion?

SS: Well, she is the most famous person who cares the least about fame that I know. I remember thinking one day, it was a total epiphany for me and it really has framed our relationship from my point of view and my feelings about her, that she would be just as happy being a fourth grade teacher with a little house, with a porch swing and three oak trees, because she would be working to be the best teacher for those students and that would be her mission. Over the years, I've spent a lot of time with famous people and some are on the same path, about evolution and enlightenment, and they are curious and puzzled in wonderment about the fame thing, but I think Oprah stands apart in that she really could care less about it. She saves toast. Can I tell you that? She saves toast.[laughs] I have been in her office and she's putting toast in a baggy for the next day. And every time I'm always reminded that this is truly one of the most rare and unique women who have ever walked the face of the earth. She is - with all the heaps of accomplishment and fame and fortune, I always know every day and I'm very clear in every moment, what she cares about most, and that is the connection and the reaching out with her hand, to, whether it's one person or a billion. So that is the light that guides my work every day, because I know that to be true. It's very illuminating.


Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director ofFeminist.com and cofounder of EcoMall.com, a website promoting environmentally-friendly living. Marianne has worked for many media outlets and publications. Her interviews with well-known individuals appear atFeminist.com as well as in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, The Huffington Post, the Women's Media Center, and many others.
Marianne is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice. Through her writings, interviews, and websites, Marianne strives to raise awareness and inspire activism around important issues and causes. For more information, visit www.marianneschnall.com and www.daringtobeourselves.com.

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