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Saturday, 10 December 2011

Oprah and protégés give Atlanta fans a treat

Oprah Winfrey is well established as one of the most powerful media personalities in the world. Not surprisingly, her fledgling cable network, OWN, has been under major scrutiny for its early ratings woes.

Provided Oprah and her team of lifestyle experts, including design guru Nate Berkus, financial whiz Suze Orman and Dr. Mehmet Oz will speak at the O You! conference Saturday, Oct. 15 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta.

It's easy to forget she also owns a hugely successful women's magazine: O. After 12 years, it has a steady 2.4 million subscribers and, according to publisher Jill Seelig, more than 15 million readers a month. In recent years, the magazine has hosted an annual conference called "O You!" in different cities to reward its loyal readers. It features live seminars from the magazine's regular contributors.

Saturday, Winfrey and several protégés, including Dr. Mehmet Oz, Suze Orman and Gayle King, will regale 5,000 Oprah fans with words of wisdom and sage advice at a sold-out Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta.

In past years, the conference featured individual appearances. This time, the personalities will be grouped together in seminars by topic under the names of regular columns from the magazine, such as "Finding Your Passion" and "Feeling Better, Looking Better."

The day will culminate at 3 p.m. with an appearance and talk by Winfrey herself. In a rare print interview, she talked with the AJC earlier this week about the conference, the magazine and her network. Some excerpts:

AJC: Congratulations on your magazine making it 11 years.

Winfrey: Thank you. The magazine, if I may say so myself, it's one of the smartest, most thoughtful inspirational magazines out there. When I started it [in 2000], the idea was ‘Live your best life.' It's like that with the network, too. It took time to actually mold the magazine and create something with substance and light. In the beginning, it was a bit too stoic.

Q: You mean it was too serious?

Winfrey: Yes. I wanted to deliver a message of hope, inspiration, aspiration and fun. Sometimes, I have to be reminded to have fun... When we released the first edition, I thought it was a B-minus. The magazine hit its stride maybe six or seven years ago. We have some of the best writers in the business. I can't say enough about the magazine now. I am super A-plus proud of what my team has been able to do continuously sustain with that magazine. I probably spend the least amount of time with the magazine because it has its own momentum and the team understands the way I think.

Q: So how does the conference tie in with the magazine?

Winfrey: The conference is a celebration of the reader. If I wanted to just celebrate the magazine, I could bring the team together, have us pat ourselves on the back, drink some margaritas and call it a day. This is very different. This brings added value to our advertisers [which include L'Oreal, Truvia and Ikea] who can see, feel and connect with our readers. It's also a way for the readers to connect with our contributors: me, Dr. Oz, Martha Beck, Suze Orman, the team. Nothing beats the live experience. Nothing beats one-on-one.

Q: What do you plan to say on stage?

Winfrey: I'm probably going to build on what everybody else is saying. We as a society get really hung up looking at other people's lives and think that's the life I should be leading when in fact, that's not the life for you. I want people to slow down and begin to think seriously about what matters to them. People always answer the question of what they want with "I just want to be happy!" But people can't define what happiness looks like.

Q: OWN Network has been a bit slow out of the gate. Are you preaching patience?

Winfrey: I feel anything that is worthy of success takes time and effort and energy. I've only been off the air from my talk show since May 25. I only started giving OWN my full attention in late July, early August. We're all here to make a different kind of television, the type of television where you'll find pieces of light in the same way as the "Oprah" show. That takes time to build. We're building it. That's how I feel.

Q: Some people expected that since your name was attached to the network, it'd be an instant success.

Winfrey: Those are false expectations. Any successful network, whether it was Bravo, Discovery or TLC, they all had to develop and build. The difference for us is we're doing it with this big spotlight on us. Most people get to a point where something works, then get noticed. Not us.

Q: Does all the criticism bug you?

Winfrey: It's really OK. For me, it's about the long-term vision for using the network to do the same thing we did with the magazine and the talk show. I'm excited about "Lifeclass." [Oprah talks about lessons she learned from original "Oprah" shows.]. I'm excited about Rosie O'Donnell's talk show. Lisa Ling has done some of the best work of her career. We have a show called "Sweetie Pie's," which is fun. It's about a soul food restaurant in St. Louis. It's charming and entertaining but the message is it's hard to run a business in these economic times.

Some of those joining Oprah:

Nate Berkus

-- Best known as: A design expert with his own "Nate Berkus Show," seen locally at 8 a.m. weekdays on WATL-TV.

-- Conference duties: "I'm presenting with Peter Walsh. We've worked on home makeover for 10 years. I'm really excited to be on stage with him. We want to solve problems and give people information they can legitimately put to use... It's not inexpensive to attend the show. This is a vacation for many people who saved up all year to come. I want to deliver something that is a great experience and leaves great memories for them."

Gayle King

-- Best known as: Oprah's BFF, host of the daily "Gayle King Show" on OWN and editor-at-large of O magazine.

-- Conference duties: "I do the welcoming remarks. I'm sure people are excited to see Oprah. Most people haven't seen her since May. I also like to walk around and just talk to people."

Suze Orman

-- Best known as: A tough-as-nails financial guru with a popular CNBC weekend show and a regular columnist for O magazine.

-- Her take on the conference: “There’s something about being able to see people that you’ve been reading about for years and years. It’s almost as if the people get a chance to touch you. It almost brings the magazine into true life."

Dr. Mehmet Oz

-- Best known as: Host of "The Dr. Oz Show," seen daily at 4 p.m. locally on Fox 5 (WAGA-TV).

-- Plans for conference: "I'm not preplanning anything. Folks who come to this conference sometimes wonder if their best years are behind them. That's not the case. You are wherever you are... I'll be working on stage with Martha Beck, who I absolutely adore. Though I won't be talking the entire time, I'll be learning the entire time from her."

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