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Conversation with Sheri Salata


Note: The following interview was conducted for the article Oprah Winfrey's OWN Network which appeared at the Women's Media Center site.

INTERVIEW WITH OWN: OPRAH WINFREY NETWORK PRESIDENT
SHERI SALATA (4/30/12)

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: Obviously it's a big endeavor to give birth to a network. What has been the most challenging aspects of running a network and what lessons have you learned?

SS: Hmm. Well in that context, it sounds like challenge is difficulty and I really don't frame it that way, nor does Eric or Oprah. Here's what it really feels like to me, in my gut. It feels like an incredible, amazing opportunity. And the lesson learned is move swiftly, be decisive - the volume of ideas and shows and innovation that we need to come up with, is really coming at us on a daily basis. And lessons, what would I say? I mean, I think the whole thing is a lesson. In the best way. I knew it was going to take alignment, let me just put it that way. I knew that this was going to succeed with alignment and that has been really where I would say I focused most of my time, between Chicago and L.A. and New York. And I'm not sure I can tell you my lessons yet. Maybe I can in a year.

MS: You were talking about being one of the first to integrate Skype. One of the things I am so impressed about in shows like Lifeclass, you have been actively integrating multi-media technologies such as Skype, live webcasts and social media - what are your goals in doing this? Do you see OWN as a pioneer in exploring and taking advantage of these new mediums?

SS: I absolutely do and I think that is the space that we literally can "own", because we have Oprah behind it, so that immediately means every move we make in social media is much bigger than it would make if we were XYZ Network. So it's kind of a booster rocket to help us with these initiatives. I was just with Oprah in New York and we logged her on and she joined InstaGram, which is great and a big move for us in terms of connecting with our viewers. I think the social media thing is the path to uniqueness, to having our network stand apart from all of the other networks. I think we are going to learn some very, very interesting things about connection and engagement. To already be worldwide on that, when OWN is not distributed worldwide, yet, other than Canada – allows us to lead ahead of where we're at. We don't have to wait for the business of it to catch up, we get to lead beyond that. And I will tell you, I wake up every day thinking about how social media is the gasoline that can fuel us to go further, faster. I really do.

MS: I completely agree with that.

SS: I sit backstage at those Lifeclasses, because I'm not in the EP chair, and am watching the Twitter feeds, I am watching Facebook, I'm watching the photos being posted and shared, I'm watching people who are sitting at home, taking a little lesson and tweeting that out and it getting retweeted around the world and nothing makes me happier!

MS: This is a stressful time for many people and the world is faced with a variety of serious problems - people often look to media as a distraction, as an escape but do you see a role for positive media like OWN to improve people's lives and the state of the world? What do you see as the potential of media as a transformative force for good?

SS: Let’s start with this - who else is bold enough to put Lifeclass in prime time? And then when you see that the connection and the engagement around that conversation - every great spiritual leader that's ever been, has said that 'change begins with you'. Every single one. And the fact that so many people are excited and willing to engage with a cable network and a digital platform working hand in hand to have that conversation, I think is a very good sign. I think that is a very good sign. At the same time, there are times even when I, too, and you might agree, I want to turn on something and have a yuck, have a chuckle, kind of be uplifted, which was very much a theme on the Oprah Show - but we need to do it differently. We cannot be exploitative. We cannot program to the lowest common denominator. That isn't where we're going. I would say one of my big goals - apart from the social media thing, which I am living and breathing right now, because I see that as our greatest opportunity to break out - would be to also tackle and develop that lighter side in a way that fits for our brand.

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: That's very exciting.

SS: Wouldn't that be great?

MS: Yes. I would love to be a part of that. It is so important to get women together. Gloria just hosted Feminist.com's salon on feminism at her apartment, and we had Gloria and some of our other Advisory Board members speak, like Pat Mitchell, Kathy Najimy and Carol Gilligan, and it was such an energizing, powerful evening.

SS: Oh, I love Pat Mitchell.

MS: People are now clamoring for us to do a salon series - and I work with and interview a lot of women thought leaders and I think something like that on OWN would be amazing.

SS: Fantastic.

MS: Going back to talking about women and media, OWN aired the documentary, "Miss Representation" which I wrote an article about for Women’s Media Center, and I thought it was one of the most powerful films I ever saw. I also loved the "Rosie Special" you aired afterward which was also great. That, to me, was another one of those moments when I felt like, am I really watching this on television? It was so fantastic. There's so much media objectifying women and making them feel that they have to change themselves or focus on their appearance or be something that they're not. OWN seems to have such a different message, which is about honoring and valuing who we authentically are, so that we can find our true voice and calling and put that into the world. That has been largely absent from not only television, but any form of media.

SS: Right.

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.

My 17-year anniversary is coming up on August 1st and 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: I don't know if you want to comment on this, but some of the media coverage about OWN has been driving me a bit crazy. Oprah joked a little bit about this at the Lifeclass tapings. She has to keep reminding people, 'we're building a network'. This is a very big undertaking. It takes time and the media is so ready to call things a certain way. Does that frustrate you? What is the one message or correction you would want to get out there about how things are being framed? Because I wish there was more focus on the programming.

SS: That's not as fun for some people. You have to be really, really jazzed about where we're going. Let me think. What is the correction? I have kind of already moved on and it's not like - I love criticism and critiques, I look for what I think is most useful, but I feel that the truth is everybody is a bit behind. You know that story has come and gone. We are in a better position than we've ever been in since the network launched. It is the joy and honor of Oprah's life to do this. I think anybody can understand that there's more to it and a lot more opportunity and a lot more things to manage, probably than anybody knew. But gosh, isn't it like that with all new things you do?

MS: Exactly.

SS: What is the correction? The correction is I think there are - the same people who are underestimating us right now, will just flip around and write something different when they see something else.

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: By the way, I feel that way already. I met Tony Robbins backstage at the Lifeclass tapings and then I interviewed him - we did a really lengthy interview last week which was really great, and I told him I was doing this piece and I asked him if he wanted to make a comment on OWN and working with Oprah. I don't know if you have a second for me to read it to you, it's a paragraph.

SS: Sure.

MS: So he said,"Oprah is so unique and I think one thing that sets her apart, besides her depth of caring, is her courage. And people don't realize what kind of courage it takes to do something like this. To try to build a network on all positive content in a world where if it bleeds, it leads, is the line for almost every news piece. When you turn on the news, and what's happening? All something's designed to grab your attention. If you walk by a newspaper in the old days, before you had the news on your phone, you saw the newspaper and it says 'great weather this weekend' and you just keep walking. But if it says, big storm coming, in those days, you put 50˘ in and grabbed that thing as fast as you could, right? So in a world where people like to see their own sense of significance by tearing somebody else down - voting people off the island is much more popular than showing people how to expand their consciousness. For her to take this on and to have the world staring at her while she builds it, requires an incredible level of courage and incredible level of caring, because she sure as hell doesn't need the money and she doesn't need the acknowledgment. She's already Oprah, for God's sake. So I just honor the hell of who she is as a person. She's driven to do this purely for good. And I did so many interviews and they all say, 'Is Oprah going to do this? Are you going to help Oprah?' I say, Oprah doesn't need anybody else’s help. All she needs is a little time to figure out how to make this thing work and she's doing that and she's outstanding and she's going to make it work. Her gift is not the most popular network. Her gift is content that can change people's lives and that's what she's focused on and I just honor the heck out of her and I'm privileged to be able to be a part of it."

SS: Oh man, I just love him. You know what's so interesting for me is I think it might have been six years ago, I had this feeling like Tony Robbins needed to be with Oprah. They hadn't met and I went to see him give a speech at O'Hare, by O'Hare Airport, and I was just sitting there going we are going to come together at some point - I'm not exactly sure what it is, but we are going to come together. And really for me, that Lifeclass in New York City, on the heels of Oprah and I spending the day at his seminar which was just fantastic.

MS: I love that episode. He invited me to go to the next one.

SS: Well, you want to go!

MS: I know. I do.

SS: It was an amazing experience. But when I'm watching Oprah and Tony teach and I'm seeing that so-and-so from Belgium says this and somebody from the Netherlands says - that's a fulfillment of one of my little mini dreams. I just say, okay, I can do this work until the day I die. That is for sure. It is so nourishing to my soul. And when we become all that we can be, it's going to be the greatest achievement of Oprah's life and she's achieved a lot. It will certainly be the greatest achievement of mine, to have been a part of it.

MS: Having just heard that quote from Tony, who makes the point that Oprah obviously doesn’t need the fame or fortune, she's developing this network purely for good. 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.

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For more information on OWN - the Oprah Winfrey Network and for a schedule of OWN programs, visit www.oprah.com/own. If you are not sure where to find OWN, you can use the channel finder.

Portions of this interview originally appeared at The Women's Media Center in the article Oprah Winfrey's OWN Network.

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Other interviews by Marianne Schnall

Sheri Salata
President, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network and Harpo Studios

Sheri Salata was named president, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, along with Erik Logan, in July 2011. As presidents of OWN and Harpo Studios, Ms. Salata and Mr. Logan strengthen the alignment and programming mission of both companies and develop television production at Harpo exclusively for OWN. Ms. Salata reports directly to Oprah Winfrey, chief executive officer and chief creative officer, OWN.

Ms. Salata served as executive producer of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” September 2006 through its finale in 2011. She first joined Harpo Studios in 1995 as promotions producer. During her 15-year tenure, she has held positions with increasing levels of responsibility, including senior promotions producer, supervising producer of Promotion and Development, senior supervising producer of Promotion and Development, senior producer of Production, and supervising producer before taking on the role as executive producer.

Prior to joining Harpo Studios, Ms. Salata produced television commercials for Grey Chicago and Lois/GGK. She also spent time as a freelance producer.

Ms. Salata was born in Georgia, and raised in the suburbs north of Chicago. She holds a Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing from the University of Iowa.

OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network

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©Marianne Schnall. No portion of this interview may be reprinted without permission of Marianne Schnall .

Related articles by Marianne Schnall:

  • "Miss Representation"—Poised to Advance a Media Movement
  • An In-depth Interview With Life Coach Tony Robbins
  • Exclusive Conversation Between Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra
  • Behind-the-Scenes At Oprah's Lifeclass With Tony Robbins And Deepak Chopra

    Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.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 at Feminist.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's new book, based on her interviews with a diversity of well known women, is 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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