Oprah Does Her ‘OWN’ Thing

Oprah Winfrey kicked off 2011 in a big way, by launching her very own television channel on New Year's Day. The Oprah Winfrey Network, which goes by the acronym "OWN", is a 50-50 joint venture between Oprah's company, Harpo, and Discovery Communications, the group which owns the Discovery Channel. It is available in 80 million homes on cable TV. Host Michel Martin speaks with Sheila Johnson, a billionaire business mogul who co-founded cable network BET over thirty years ago, about Oprah's new venture.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

From one woman who's changed the lives of millions of people to another. Now we're talking about Oprah Winfrey. As you probably know, Oprah Winfrey likes to do it up big. And she kicked off 2011 by launching her very own television channel - the Oprah Winfrey Network, which goes by the acronym OWN.

(Soundbite of TV clip)

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Founder, OWN): Happy New Year, everybody, and welcome to OWN.

MARTIN: The network is a 50/50 joint venture between Oprah's media company, Harpo, and Discovery Communications, the company that owns the Discovery Channel. It's currently available in 80 million homes as a pay channel, and it offers programming that ranges from reality shows to self-improvement shows, the kind of fare that's made her long-running talk show a global hit with women.

Now, Oprah's made her mark providing content, but what can she expect as she launches her network in a competitive cable and satellite television market? We decided to ask somebody who has already done it, Sheila Johnson, herself an African-American billionaire, who - together with her former husband, Bob Johnson - founded BET, Black Entertainment Television, more than 30 years ago.

Sheila Johnson is now in the hotel and hospitality business, as well as a majority owner of the Washington Mystics, which is part of the WNBA, and a minority owner of two other men's professional sports teams. And she's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Sheila Johnson, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us again.

Ms. SHEILA JOHNSON (Founder, BET): Well, thank you.

MARTIN: Now, we didn't mention all your other philanthropic activities. We can talk about that some other time. But I wanted to ask: What was your reaction when you heard that Oprah Winfrey was going to launch a network? Was it good for her, or was it she has no idea what she's getting into?

Ms. JOHNSON: Oh, no. She knows what she's getting into. She's probably one of the smartest women out there. I've admired everything that she's done. And you have to understand, as entrepreneurs, we start from the very beginning. It's tough in the beginning. But this second launch for Oprah, she's visionary. And being a visionary, she's also very innovative. And she has taken this vision already built on what she has done over many, many years.

So this was a no-brainer for her. And it's been in the works for the past couple of years. You know, what was she going to do? She's young. She's still vital. I mean, she just couldn't quit.

MARTIN: When you started BET - you and Bob Johnson started BET, though - cable, as a concept, was relatively new. I do remember that when CNN, for example, tried to get interviews with some international political leaders around the world, some of them resisted because they thought cable was associated with, you know, porn, for example, or with down markets. So, cable, for some people, when you started, was still a new concept. And you started, as I recall, as a three-hour-a-week channel, and then grew into a 24-hour major market network that eventually sold for $3 billion.

Ms. JOHNSON: Right. It actually started two hours a week.

MARTIN: Two hours a week.

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: And she's operating - she's coming into a very different environment, starting out as a 24-hour channel to begin with.

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah. She's really plunged into the swimming pool, so to speak, you know, full force, going 24/7. But when cable - the birth of cable was a real birth. I mean, that's when all the networks started going on. And BET struggled because unlike Oprah's network, BET was so targeted to the African-American audience, and there had been no credibility built there. And when we tried to launch it - and if it weren't for John Malone, who threw money behind that network, it would've never been up. And he was considered - and has always been the angel behind - the financial angel behind that network, even all the way up to its sale to Viacom.

MARTIN: But you started, as I recall, with an initial $15,000 investment from you. And John Malone contributed half a million dollars, but that still is pennies in today's environment.

Ms. JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. I mean, back then it was a lot of money. But I'll tell you, we went through it in a couple of months. But he continued to infuse money into our network to keep it alive.

MARTIN: What was the biggest challenge?

Ms. JOHNSON: The biggest challenge was to go out to sell advertising, to get sponsorship. No one believed in it. We had no track record. Here are two teachers starting an African-American targeted network, something that we thought is needed - was needed, and is still needed. It has now got one of the biggest brands out there. But to ask people to put money behind something like that is like, are you kidding me?

MARTIN: What was the challenge? That they didn't believe in you or potential advertisers didn't think that you could pull it off, or they didn't believe in the concept? They said, well, why did you need an African-American oriented channel?

Ms. JOHNSON: I think it was all of the above. And you also have to understand, I mean, we even went to Ebony magazine, which was really the media king at the time. And I think there could've been a little bit of jealousy there with John Johnson, you know. You know, he was media on print. And here we were going on the air, and no one really wanted to risk the dollars to put behind BET. So it was a struggle. I'm going to tell you, it was a struggle for about the first two to three years.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking with business mogul, co-founder of the Black Entertainment Television network BET, Sheila Johnson. She currently owns a number of luxury hotel properties, as well as sports teams, and we're talking about the launch of the Oprah Winfrey network just this week. We're talking with somebody who's already done it.

So the challenge for Oprah is different than the challenge you face in that everybody knows her. She's a global brand. Everybody believes in her. And they also know that she has the - they know her content. What's her major challenge? I mean, one of the things that I have heard so far, number one, her audience, her six million-plus audience, some people who have been used to getting her for free on network television object to having to pay the cable fees.

And also, there's also some criticism of the content, as there is of BET. There are - people were saying this is the same old reality dreck. What do you think her major challenge is?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, she has demographic-specific programming. She's got stacked programming that really does appeal to women. Her greatest challenge is going to be able to stay true to herself, who she really is. I mean, and that's the beauty of Oprah. She is able to talk about herself, to expose herself and her frailties to other women and bring those issues out. Is it going to get old? It just might. And she's going to - hopefully, her team behind her is going to have to come up with even more creative - and even widen her audience.

MARTIN: How would you - based on your experience - recommend that? And I don't know if you're in the business of giving advice to other - your fellow moguls.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But how would you recommend that she grow her business?

Ms. JOHNSON: I think, first of all, Oprah really needs to stick to what she really believes in doing. She should never go off that path. And I think a few times she has done that, and it's cost her her ratings. The only advice that I say, let's open up your circle a little bit more. You know, we love the Dr. Phils. We love the Suze Ormans. Let's open up. There are other people. And there's also African-American experts out there that I think she should start bringing on her show that can reach even a wider audience.

MARTIN: And it's true that there doesn't appear to be a great deal of ethnic diversity in her programming at this point, which is puzzling to some people.

Ms. JOHNSON: No. Yes. And I think she really should do that and not be afraid to do it. There's really a lot of great experts out there that really know the businesses at hand. And I'd like to see her open up her circle to do that.

MARTIN: Sheila Johnson is the co-founder of the cable network Black Entertainment Television, BET. She's an entrepreneur and the CEO of Salamander Hospitality, LLC, and the vice chair of Monumental Sports and Entertainment. And she was with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Sheila Johnson, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. JOHNSON: You're so welcome.

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