December 10, 2010 7:29 pm

Oprah Winfrey: out on her own

 
Michell Obama and Oprah Winfrey©Getty

Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama at the International Olympic Committee Congress in Copenhagen, 2009

The queen of chat has no time to talk. Oprah Winfrey is cramming in screen time on the final season of her talk show, preparing to launch her own cable network, and packing for Australia, where she is flying 300 loyal viewers in December (Sydney’s best-known landmark has, inevitably, been dubbed the “Oprah House” in anticipation). She can’t fit in an interview, but suggests that if we e-mail over some questions she will write out the answers.

Oprah is as much a professional as she is a diva, and two pages of answers duly come back, conveying the unmistakable blend of business ­savvy and self-improvement-speak that has made her a unique figure in the media industry and a singularly influential voice in popular culture as she prepares to reinvent her empire.

She has graced countless magazine covers ­(including every edition of O, The Oprah Magazine) and appeared on almost every list of powerful women in the past decade, so when she is asked how women’s place in society and business has changed in that period, it is fitting that her answer is all about power. “Women have as many definitions of power as there are women to use it. The only power that matters is authentic ­power – power that comes from you serving the highest expression of yourself, being true to who you are,” she writes. “That’s the reason we have seen such entrepreneurial explosions in business during the past decade. Women [are] figuring out how to make money doing what they love.”

Oprah’s tantalising promise to her audience, which has sustained The Oprah Winfrey Show as the number one talk show on US daytime television for nearly 25 years, is that their “authentic power”, their “true calling”, their “best life” is within their grasp. And by reaching for it, they might become just a little bit more like the disarmingly normal billionaire they have grown up with.

“The best compliment I’ve ever been paid came in a letter from a woman in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who said that watching you be yourself every day makes me want to be more of myself,” Oprah comments, with a politician’s knack for the Everyman anecdote.

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Audiences’ early fascination with the young woman from Kosciusko, Mississippi, came down in large part to what she was not: unlike most talk-show hosts in 1985, she was not male, skinny, perfectly groomed or white. (A Baltimore station manager wanted her to change her name to Suzie, saying nobody would ever remember Oprah.) A quarter of a century later, aged 56, she now pulls off a rare “ordinary billionaire” balancing act, where her viewers know that she has wealth they can only dream of, but either believe that she is just the same as them regardless or hope some of her estimated $2.7bn fortune will rub off.

“Although we like reading the lists, we know being powerful isn’t about how rich you are, or whether you get your own coffee in the morning. It’s about fulfilment and finding joy in whatever service or talent you have to offer,” she says. Other chief executives tend not to mention fulfilment and joy when they talk about power, but Oprah is comfortable in a more mystical realm: “If I told you the most powerful woman I ever met, you wouldn’t recognise her name,” she says. “That’s because her power comes from her courage, and faith and determination and confidence to make things happen, and the ability to bow before the worst of times with grace.”

The rise of Oprah, from rural poverty and abuse, via local broadcasts and national syndication to international renown, personifies what David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, dubbed “the self-esteem hurricanes” that have blown through the American landscape in the past generation. Yet there is a gulf between the reach of Oprah’s uplifting message and the influence of any mere self-help guru, celebrity chef or lifestyle model. Martha Stewart (who also built a media empire around her brand) may tell you how to do things, like the perfect table decoration or flawless canapés, but Oprah tells you what to do with your life. And as for US television staples Dr Phil (McGraw), Rachael Ray, Suze Orman and Dr (Mehmet) Oz, well, Oprah made their careers.

The audience fragmentation that has shattered many middle-of-the-road media properties seems only to have worked to the advantage of the few brands that stand out from the crowd. Oprah’s brand has spread seamlessly in the past decade from television to a magazine selling 2.4 million copies a month (more than Martha), a satellite radio channel, a film company, a well-trafficked website, video-filled iPad apps and a 4.6 million-strong following on Twitter. Last year’s revenues at Harpo, her production company, were estimated by Fortune at about $315m and she has become a prominent figure in philanthropy through ­Oprah’s Angel Network and The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, a school in South Africa. “There’s no question she’s the most successful voice in broadcast television, probably in history,” says David Zaslav, CEO of Discovery Communications.

In the process, the “Oprah effect” has entered the lexicon as shorthand for the boost she can bestow by introducing her audience to a book, a television presenter or a holiday gift. Her regular pre-Christmas episodes, Oprah’s Favorite Things, have propelled sales of products from body butter to cars. Supplicant manufacturers beg for inclusion on the list, and some investors base their stock picks on the show’s selections.

Publishers are equally in thrall to her book club, whose choices have nabbed more than 60 places on US bestseller lists since 1996, and several commentators saw evidence of the “Oprah ­effect” in the election of America’s first black president, given her vigorous campaigning for Barack Obama after telling him in 2004 she believed he was “the One”.

In a country where media outlets are increasingly split between left and right, Oprah has hovered above the divisions from her Chicago base. Weak ratings this summer, where she was briefly overtaken by Judge Judy, were seen by some as evidence that her popularity was tumbling with president Obama’s poll standing, but she has regained her lead since the autumn. In November, she interviewed former president George W. Bush, without a hint of discomfort on either side.

“I’ve always known that The Oprah Winfrey Show was a phenomenon, and that was not planned. The effects of the show were far beyond my power and control,” she says. But her description of its influence is not about the readership of Jonathan Franzen novels, sales of Philosophy cosmetics or voting patterns, but about her pride in the programme’s “immeasurable” effect on people’s personal lives and on “the culture”.

“We were one of the first shows to talk about alcoholism and dysfunctional families in a way that wasn’t exploitative, to shed light on domestic abuse, to depict postpartum depression and to openly discuss gay rights and marriage in the ’80s,” she says.

It is one of the oddities of her show that it can veer from ecstatic whooping over a cashmere sweater to heartbreaking investigations into sexual abuse and back again to tearful interviews with Whitney Houston or couch-jumping antics from Tom Cruise. “A lot of people’s lives have been deeply and directly affected by the show,” its host says. “The ability we’ve had to help make those connections with the viewers, to allow them to see themselves in someone else’s story … has been unparalleled.”

Now, the question is whether the connection will prove strong enough for viewers to follow her from broadcast television to cable. Nine months before the last episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show airs, she will launch the Oprah Winfrey Network – OWN for short – on New Year’s Day (a day of ­resolutions fitting to its mission “to entertain, inform and inspire people to live their best lives”.)

The channel is a 50-50 joint venture between Harpo and Discovery Communications, the cable channel owner behind Man vs Wild, Dirty Jobs and Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Discovery is putting in $189m and a route to 78 million homes. Harpo is injecting Oprah.com, a library of old episodes and what Discovery’s Zaslav calls “maybe the ­strongest brand in media”, Oprah herself, who will have ­editorial control over all programming.

. . .

The idea has been brewing for a long time, says Oprah. “In the early ’90s Stedman [Graham, her partner] and I were talking about the state of trash television and I was frustrated with what I thought television was becoming. He suggested that I create my own ­network. So I wrote in my journal that night and I thought of the letters O-W-N, standing for Oprah Winfrey Network (I’m always looking for signs). I decided then that the goal of this network would be to create mindful rather than mindless television programming.”

Announced in January 2008, OWN was supposed to launch in 2009, but was set back by a dire advertising climate and management upheaval. Now, with a creative team led by former MTV executive Christina Norman and more reality shows in the mix, details of its schedule confirm that the new chapter in her career will have a familiar message of self-discovery, for viewers and host alike.

The channel’s line-up will include Rosie O’Donnell, an occasionally controversial television host and comedienne; Gayle King, one of Oprah’s closest friends; Sarah Ferguson, the ­Duchess of York; and “Oprah’s All Stars” – protégés such as Dr Phil, Suze Orman and Dr Oz. They will not all be on from day one, however, and Oprah’s on-screen presence will be limited until she finishes filming The Oprah Winfrey Show in May. The main attraction has committed to being on screen for just 70 hours a year, excluding repeats (twice as much as she initially agreed, in response to feedback from anxious cable companies).

The full extent of her plans remains unclear, but they include Oprah’s Next Chapter, a globetrotting programme which will give the queen of daytime her primetime debut. She will also appear on a series called Master Class, featuring interviews with “modern masters” from Jay-Z and Simon Cowell to Sidney Poitier, Maya Angelou and, of course, Oprah.

Other early shows include In The Bedroom with Dr Laura Berman (there are a lot of doctors in Oprah’s orbit), a documentary called One Lucky Elephant (“a touching account of a man’s incredible love for a wild animal”) and a show in which Oprah auditions people pitching programme ideas for OWN. The final season of The Oprah Winfrey Show will itself be fodder for a behind-the-scenes series.

“Too often I’ve watched shows and wondered what did I just watch that for? What a misuse of my time. I don’t ever want to waste the viewers’ time on OWN,” she says. “When you turn on the channel, you will find something that is either inspirational or meaningful or thoughtful or perhaps just something that brings a little piece of light to your life. Because, in my heart, I am a teacher and I feel it is best when viewers can have an a-ha moment or two and be entertained at the same time.”

. . .

OWN will be up against scores of lifestyle channels, covering food, decorating or relationships, but no one competitor clearly combines the various elements with Oprah’s optimistic message, and her uplifting fare could stand out amid the bitchy reality shows. Oprah’s celebrity was not enough to make a success of Oxygen, a cable channel showing a mix of female-focused programming – from sitcom Kate & Allie to the Inhale yoga show – in which she invested in 2000. But early bookings from blue-chip advertisers for OWN have been “extremely robust”, Discovery says.

The audience for The Oprah Winfrey Show was more than 12 million a decade ago, compared with just over eight million now, and in bidding farewell to broadcast television, she is trading a declining ­medium for cable, where audiences, fees and advertising revenues continue to grow strongly. Her departure from daytime TV will change the ­economics of local television in the US. One local broadcaster, Nexstar, told investors recently that Oprah’s syndicated show accounted for a quarter of its programming expenses.

Publishers and others whose brands have benefited from the “Oprah effect” are waiting nervously to see whether the new network will offer them the same opportunities. Discovery’s investors and international partners are wondering whether Oprah’s all-American offering will travel. (Oprah notes that her broadcast show has been syndicated in more than 145 countries, points out that OWN will hit six million Canadian homes in March, and says: “I won’t be satisfied until we reach every country around the world where TV is available.”)

There is not much left of the mass media in which Oprah came to fame. Broadcast television may be declining, but it can still pull in audiences larger than the cable channels, which reach just two-thirds of the country. The challenge for OWN will be to retain the place that The Oprah Winfrey Show earned its host in the national, and international, conversation.

Asked what her aspirations are now, Oprah does not mention ratings or revenues. Instead, she replies: “I try to live in the space where I can let God use me and where I can be used for something greater than myself. I’m grateful for the run we’ve had with the show, but I’m ready to be used for the next thing.” OWN “will be what it’s supposed to be”, she says, as she ends with an image that is part advertisement, part product placement and part rallying cry: “I was in London a few months ago, at the Lanvin store, and I bought a palette of about 170 coloured pencils. I don’t know how to sketch, but I was excited by the idea of having all of these different colours readily available to create a picture. That’s what this network feels like – a paintbox of colours – anything we want to do, we can create. There are infinite possibilities. That’s exhilarating. And what real freedom feels like!”

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s media editor

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