Leadership

What Discovery’s CEO learned from working with Oprah Winfrey

In 2011, Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav worked with Oprah Winfrey to launch OWN, the television network that bears her name. Though he was already one of cable television's most successful executives, he says the queen of daytime taught him two essential lessons.

"You have to put yourself out there, and you have to believe."

Zaslav described his first meeting with Winfrey in a wide-ranging interview with CNBC contributor Suzy Welch.

Then 47, Zaslav had left NBC Universal, where his tenure included the launch of CNBC and MSNC, to become the CEO of Discovery six months prior.

Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav
CNBC
Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav

"I was a believer. I really felt that this could work. We could do something," Zaslav tells Welch. He initially began thinking about a Winfrey-helmed network while reading his wife's copy of O, The Oprah Magazine.

"The real reason it worked is that when I sat across from Oprah face to face, and I said, 'Look, here's what I believe, and here's what I think we can do together, and here's why I think this can work,' we connected," he tells Welch.

That apparently struck a chord with Winfrey. "Oprah connected with that," says Zaslav. "And you know, we hadn't met before."

But then something surprising happened: "Oprah grabbed my hand," he tells Welch. The pair walked to her office and she opened a desk drawer, revealing a diary from 15 years earlier.

CNBC contributor Suzy Welch and Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav
CNBC
CNBC contributor Suzy Welch and Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav

"The diary said, 'Someday, I'll have my own network,'" Zaslav says. "And she looked at me and said, ''You know, we're going to do this.'"

The network struggled with ratings at first, and went through a number of top executives before Winfrey herself took over as CEO. The Wall Street Journal reports that under her leadership, the network has been able to nab better viewership.

Along with OWN, Discovery Communications is the parent of successful channels like TLC, Animal Planet and, of course, the Discovery Channel.

Zaslav notes that their in-person connection was key. "It wasn't social media. It wasn't texting. It wasn't phone."

He recalls how in that first meeting, he spelled out his passion for the project coming to fruition. "I think we could have a legacy," he told Winfrey at the time. "If we do this right, this could be well beyond you and me."

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC, MSNBC and CNBC.

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