“So how does this work?” Oprah Winfrey asked the critics as she took the stage for a Q&A about OWN, the new Oprah Winfrey Network she launched under the Discovery cable umbrella.
You can understand Oprah’s confusion. Throughout her 25 years on the national stage, she’s spent much more time asking questions than answering them. And though she’s appeared at press tour on occasion, it’s usually been to promote movies or miniseries she produced, and where there were lots of other panelists fielding questions right along with her.
But this was Oprah alone on stage for 50 minutes – a very strange, long-winded 50 minutes in which seven reporters got to ask questions, and in which the third reporter’s question elicited an answer that the TCA historians in the room estimate was the longest in press tour history.
The question was a deceptively simple one: “What were your dreams when you were a kid? What did you aspire to be? And it seems like you won every lottery in the country. What were your hopes, and what were your dreams?”
Oprah smiled broadly at this and said, “God, that’s such a wonderful question. Nobody has ever asked me that. That”s a lovely question. I have to think about it.”
So she thought about it for a moment. And then she began to talk, and talk, and talk, and talk…
… for the next 18 minutes and 15 seconds, uninterrupted by the audience save for a moment where she needed us to help her remember the name of Joan Lunden.
It was an extraordinary piece of filibustering, in that Oprah answered the actual question fairly quickly, and just… kept… going. She talked about her childhood in Mississippi. She talked about Michel Jackson’s “Thriller” album. She talked about ratings. She talked about many things. Mainly, she talked. (And we tweeted about it.)
Finally, she paused and looked into the audience for a new question, and was greeted by a smattering of sarcastic applause, which the OWN and Discovery employees in the room quickly enhanced with their own more sincere clapping.
Press tour sessions are transcribed by a courtroom stenographer, and while TCA members aren’t supposed to publish whole transcripts, publishing the entirety of a single answer is fine. So here, for your own edification, is the Oprah filibuster, as best as those of us in the room experienced it:
My dreams were this big, really. I just wanted to be able to be my best. At first I thought I was going to be a fourth-grade teacher because of my favorite, Mrs. Duncan, and then I, after I was in television, got my first job in radio at 16 and then was anchoring the news by the time I was 19. My big dream – I don”t know if you all have heard this. I can”t remember what I”ve said or haven”t at this point. My big dream when I was in television – as you all know, if you are in local TV, the big goal is to be in network television. And I had an agent in Baltimore where I had given him a tape of myself on the show that I was doing. People were talking. And my biggest dream was I just wanted to be a guest host on “Good Morning America.” “Could you just send my tape in to ABC so I could guest host?” when Joan somebody used to be on. What was her name? (Crowd calls out “Joan Lunden.”) Joan Lunden. I wanted to be a substitute for Joan Lunden. And the agent at the time told me there weren”t going to be any more black people on network television. He said, “They”ve already got Bryant Gumbel.” And I said, “But that”s another channel.” And he said, “No, no. They”ve already got Bryant Gumbel. That”s not going to happen.” And then, to that same agent, I said – well, after I started doing “People Are Talking,” maybe there”s a way I could, like, get a co-hosting job in a larger market because that”s the thing. You always want to be in the larger market. And he said that couldn”t happen either. So I let that agent go. But I didn”t have – I certainly – I think that”s such a wonderful question because, after “The Color Purple” – that”s the only thing I wanted more than anything in my life – I”ve said that I learned after “The Color Purple” that God can dream a bigger dream for you than you can dream for yourself. And I try to stay in that space and live in that space. That is the universe”s dream for me, that is the bigger dream for me. That is how I try to live my life now. “All right. What do you have for me?” As you heard me say to Barbara Walters, if you saw that, that my prayer is “Use me. Use me.” And I see myself really as a messenger for a message that is greater than myself, and the message is you can. You can. You can. You can do and you can be, and you can grow, and it can get better. And it doesn”t matter where you were born or who your mother was or how many doctorate degrees you did have or your family had or your father had. It doesn”t matter. You can. You can do. And, you know, my goal in my lifetime is to really help people to understand that we are all here as human beings to evolve, and so the evolving of consciousness is really what I”m about, but I”m not telling people that”s what it is. But all of us are here to become more of who we are, of who you really were born to be, and every single one of us in this room has that. That is how we are all equal because I was born to be who the creator intended, whether you believe in the creator or not, however you came to – whatever it is you believe that put you here, you were born to fulfill the highest expression of that coming. And so that is my goal as myself, my personal self, and it is also my goal to help other people to see that in themselves. And I fully understand that this platform that I have been given is a gift. When I tell you – when you look at the whole story, you look at Mississippi in 1954 and a young, colored girl born in circumstances where nobody was educated, nobody had a dream. The only dream that my grandmother had for me was that – and she used to say to me, “I hope you grow up and get some good white folks,” literally, because she worked for her family and they – The only picture I have of my grandmother is of her holding a white child that she carried, cared for, and I believe cared for at the time – I believe she cared more for that child than for me because that”s the only pictures I ever saw of her. And so her dream was that I would be able to have a family like she had that would give you clothes, that would let you bring food home, that wouldn”t degrade you or demean you or call you out of your name. Her dream for me was that I would be able to have a family that she had that would look after me like she was. So as I stood at the opening of OWN on Saturday morning, looking into eyes of David Zaslav, that”s what I thought about. I thought she would not even know how – not only did this happen, she wouldn”t even know what this is, yet I feel the spirit of her, and I feel the spirit of every single person who has come before me that”s made it possible for me to sit here before you today, is with me in this journey because I did not do this alone. Certainly, I have the OWN team, and I have my team at Harpo, and I have the whole Oprah thing going on and all of those people, but it is also bigger than that. And anybody who is writing that story has got to understand the context of what that means even in this time for me to have achieved this extraordinary, extraordinary goal of having a network and what that really means. You probably have heard me say I was afraid at first. I had much trepidation about doing this, and then I read the Nancy Griffin article in July”s Vanity Fair about Michael Jackson, and there was just one line where she said, “Michael Jackson”s friends always said that his biggest mistake was he never understood that ‘Thriller” was a phenomenon, and he spent his whole life chasing that phenomenon.” I read that and just, like, whoosh. It was more than an aha moment. All of my fear, my anxiety, my sort of trepidation about what is this going to be and waking up in the middle of the night and did I make the right decision, all of that left in that moment. That was a gift to me. I don”t know Nancy Griffin, but that was a gift to me because I realize, oh, that”s what I”m doing. I”m clutching and trying to hold on to 25 years of success. I”ve become one of those people who has been lulled by the success. I pride myself on being centered enough to not be affected by what the outside world thinks but just to stay focused on yourself. I go, “Oh, no, no. You”ve now bought into it. You bought into the Oprah is so successful, everything she touches.” That”s a falsehood. Everybody has to make choices based upon what you feel is best for yourself, and if you start buying into “I cannot fail,” buying into “I”ve had so much success,” then it makes you not willing to take a risk and not willing to grow yourself to what is and should be the next level for you. And if it means that the next level is not as successful as where you were, then it means that”s supposed to teach you something because all of us are here to become more of who you really are. And my life pattern has been – everybody has patterns in their lives, and knowing the pattern will tell you what your purpose is. So my life pattern has been, whenever I have outgrown a circumstance or a situation, I move on regardless of whether I know what the future holds. I always say “I don”t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future,” the power greater than myself. And so that was my pattern. In Nashville, Tennessee, when I was 19 years old, I got an offer to go to Atlanta to WSB to take a job as the anchorwoman there. I was making $12,000 a year. My news director said, “You can go to Atlanta and do the interview and see what happens.” Atlanta offered me $40,000. And I”m 19 years old, and that felt like the world. I came back, and I said to my boss, “They are going to pay me $40,000.” And Chris Clark, my boss at the time, said, “You are not ready. You are not ready to go to Atlanta. You are not really a strong writer. You are not even that good of a reporter. You just have a really great personality, and you are really good on live TV. But you need to stay here, hone your skills, work on yourself, work on your writing, and maybe in two or three years you”ll be ready. You need to stay with people who care enough about you to help you grow.” I said, “But it”s $40,000.” He said, “We”ll pay you 15-.” So when I outgrew that job two or three years later, I knew that I had learned all I could learn from Nashville, and I went to Baltimore. I wasn”t as successful in Baltimore, certainly not in the beginning. When I left Baltimore, they offered me a lot more money to stay, and I realized I”ve outgrown this. I can”t grow anymore here. So I”m going to move to whatever is the next thing. When I auditioned in Chicago, I didn”t know if that was going to work or last, but I thought, I”ve outgrown Baltimore, and I don”t want to become, for me, an institutional anchor. I don”t want to be sitting on the news 25 years from now, talking about what happened in the city council meeting. That”s not for me. So I moved to Chicago and took that risk that everybody told me – all my friends with the exception of Gayle said, “You won”t succeed because Chicago is a landmine. You are going to be up against Phil Donahue.” And so now it is 25 years later, and a lot of people around me said, “You should hold onto ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Why would you give that up?” Because it”s time to grow into the next phase. And here we are with OWN. And I believed in the end, with all of the support from Christina and Tom Freston and Peter Liguori and Zaslav, all of them backing me up, saying “It”s going to work. It”s going to work,” I believed that even if it didn”t work, it was worth the risk. Even if it didn”t work, the opportunity to have this platform that we will continue to build and hopefully – not even hopefully. I know it will get stronger and it will get better. The truth is my fear as I watch it myself because I honestly don”t watch television. Now I do. Now, I do. I have it on OWN all the time. But my fear is that, you know, people will tire of the repetitions. And the way I understand cable works is people are used to things repeating. But I just said to our OWN team today, I think that we need to say that before they tell us, so I just – you will see in the next couple of days a spot that I just did upstairs here, saying to the audience – because I said to Christina, I want to remain connected to the audience; I want them to know that I am hearing them, that 866 pages of message boards, the first two days, I read at least 200 pages of those. And I am grateful to them. I am grateful that the first phase of what we wanted to accomplish actually happened. I”m grateful we weren”t embarrassed. I”m grateful that people came. And what it shows is that we can get people to watch us, and as we continue to build the channel and the message – I am the messenger. But the message here is a place where you can come, and you can leave this television on in your house, in your kitchen, in your bathroom, all day long, and there”s not going to be one thing that causes you not to sleep at night. Because one of the things that really is important to me is understanding that everything in the world, really, is about energy. And there”s a wonderful book by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor called My Stroke of Insight. She is a – was a brain scientist who had a stroke, and it was on the best-sellers list for a couple of – several weeks last year. And in the book, she talks about she had a brain stroke in the left side of her brain, so only the right side of the brain was working. And she talks about how she could tell when people would come into the room to service the room, the nurses – because only the right side of the brain is working – she could feel the energy of the people, and she could tell whether that person was coming and meant her well or was that person coming and was filled with anxiety, thinking about when they were going to get off or whatever. And she had a sign made that said “Be responsible for the energy that you bring into this room” – which I now have a sign that says that in my makeup room, “Be responsible for the energy that you bring into this room.” And I am very much aware of the energy that the television is transmitting all of the time. That”s why I don”t allow – up until now, I have never allowed it on in my house, unless there was something specific that I wanted to see, because I don”t want all that energy coming into my space. I don”t want it on when I”m eating dinner. I don”t want it on when I”m in the bed. I want to control the energy that”s coming into my space. And one of the things that is central to me for our team is to understand that the intention of this channel is to bring good energy; no matter what the programming is, to bring good energy, to bring your best self, to bring your best programming, to bring your best shows. And so that”s how we operate. You sit down and you say – because I”ve been in TV all of my life, I know that most television programmers do not start the meeting by “how is this going to serve the viewer? How is this going to serve them? If it doesn”t work for them, it doesn”t work for me.” Obviously, ratings are important. Numbers are important. They”re not as important to me right now as they might be to you, and I know, you know, that”s what people like to write about. “Well, the number”s here and then they dropped off.” I”m not even concerned about that. What I”m concerned about is could we get people to the channel? Now, that we”re able to do that, we know that if we continue to build the channel with programming that is meaningful to our viewers, we listen to them, we respond to what they like and what they don”t like. It doesn”t mean all the shows are going to make it. There are a few shows that even if they don”t respond, I”m keeping on any way because I can – because I like them, and in time, it will grow on them. But keeping the connection to the audience and hearing what they have to say and operating strictly from the point of view of how we”re going to serve them, how we”re going to serve them. I think we”ll be more than all right. I think that”s a different kind of way of looking at a business, particularly the business of television. And what I know is, just like that adage of “you build it and they will come,” you serve them and they will come. They will start to feel the difference. I”ve been reading the message boards and nothing is more – I think I was saying this to – saying in the “Wall Street Journal” a while back, that you”re saying “What would be success to me,” and I was saying that to me, it”s knowing that the viewers heard what we were trying to do, that they got what we were trying to do. And they do. Some don”t. Some are complaining about, you know, that they have to spend more money, and that”s okay. You”re not going to get everybody. But at this point in my life, I”m not trying to get everybody. I”m really not. I”m really not. I”m really only trying to get the people who want to hear it and who want to see it. And if you don”t, then I”m not talking to you, and that”s okay, because there”s a lot of people in the world. There”s room for everybody.
Later, Oprah randomly discussed a gynecologist appointment and said things like, “There’s where I am. Loving the recognition of who I am.” and “I am not in love with myself.”
It was something to witness.