Yet Oprah hasn’t become a powerhouse through her empathetic personality alone. She’s also made some shrewd financial decisions along the way. In 1986 her show was syndicated nationally. Yet rather than be a “talent for hire, as most TV stars are,” as Fortune magazine noted, Oprah negotiated deals which meant her newly formed company Harpo (Oprah spelled backwards) was able to keep a substantial percentage of the show’s profits.
This period of growth, according to Harpo President Tim Bennett, was seminal. “Oprah took control of herself. And by taking control, she opened up the door to getting the lion’s share of the profits for the show.” For the 1988-89 season licensing fees were estimated at £63 million.
By 2002, annual revenues from The Oprah Winfrey Show were estimated at £189 million, and Winfrey’s net worth exceeded £630 million. But it didn’t just have financial implications, it also meant she could keep control of her show and her image.
Her personal life was also going swimmingly. In 1986, she met Stedman Graham, a once-divorced former basketball player and executive at the charity Athletes Against Drugs. At first he struggled with the idea that her wealth made her so self-sufficient.
“One of the things I think made him feel somewhat embarrassed in the beginning of the relationship is that he felt there was nothing he could do for me,” Oprah told Ebony magazine in 1993. “I have 100 employees and if I need anything done, I don’t have to call him and say, ‘Can you stop by the cleaners for me?’ What he had to learn was that is not what I need. What I need is for him to be there for me.”
Oprah admitted on Piers Morgan’s show that she and Stedman only fell in love when a relative sold a story on her. “I’m really sorry. You don’t deserve this,” Stedman told her at the time. “When someone is willing to stand in and stand up for you,” she added, “that’s what love is.”
But even once happily coupled up they faced troubles, first the suggestion that he was simply with her for her money and then, rumour began that he was gay. It was devastating for Oprah, she said, “That was the most difficult time for me. I believe in my heart that had I not been an overweight woman that rumour would never have occurred. If I were lean and pretty, nobody would ever say that. What people were really saying is why would a straight, good-looking guy be with her?”
But despite her growing wealth and success it was just this continued battle with self-image, self-confidence and tragedy that prevented Oprah’s success alienating her from viewers. Most celebrities become more reclusive as their fame and wealth grow, Oprah became even more candid. In 1995, she revealed that she had taken cocaine in her 20s, at the urging of a boyfriend.
Her dieting saga continued too – by 1992 Oprah reached her heaviest to date; 237lbs and she later admitted, “My drug of choice is food. I use food for the same reasons an addict uses drugs: to comfort, to soothe, to ease stress.”
Even last month Oprah astounded viewers by introducing her long-lost half-sister, Patricia, to the audience explaining, “I wanted you to hear it from me first.” Given the two women had only met for the first time in October last year, it was yet another brave and headline-stopping moment from brand Oprah. The episode netted the show its biggest ratings in nearly six years.
By the early Nineties so-called group therapy TV was becoming widespread and Oprah was concerned that her show didn’t follow a similarly ‘trashy’ route. So, she studied the tone of her TV rivals, judged their success to be short-term, and took a serious risk. “While Jerry Springer and his ilk filled their studios with stump-tooth degenerates, Ms Winfrey… encouraged her viewers to improve themselves,” commented a column in The Economist. Harpo’s mission statement was “to be a catalyst for transformation in people’s lives.”
Oprah wanted a television revolution. Out went her show titles like ‘Satanic Worship’ and ‘Infidelity Among Travelling Salesmen’, in came ‘Honesty Forum’, ‘Good Deeds Campaign’ and ‘Thanking People’. Personal growth became the core message, notes the Harvard Business School case study Oprah, written by Professor Nancy Koehn and Erica Helms. She trumpeted self-help gurus like Dr Phil McGraw, a psychologist who went from regular guest to owning his own show, second only in popularity to Oprah.
THE QUEEN OF EVOLUTION
The move was a masterstroke. By leading the charge away from the lowest common denominator Oprah created a pseudo-religious show, placing herself firmly in the central role as guru. Stuart Fischoff, senior editor at the Journal Of Media Psychology, joined her on the sofa in the early Nineties, and saw first-hand her ability to make everyone “fall into her aura”.
His analysis of her success is that people seek leaders to guide them and Oprah has the two most important leadership qualities – authenticity and trust. Jennifer Harris and Elwood Watson, who wrote The Oprah Phenomenon, agree that she not only befriends her viewers, but “transforms them into loyal consumers”.
By the time her book club launched in 1996, her audience was eager to follow Oprah’s lead in almost every area of their lives. Her first choice, Jacquelyn Mitchard’s The Deep End Of The Ocean, hit the top of the bestseller list in just nine days. It was a pattern repeated over and over again, The Washington Post put average sales of her book choices between 1996 and 2002 at more than a million each.
Kathleen Rooney, author of Reading With Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America, isn’t surprised at her impact, “No matter how big Oprah gets, she manages to come across as your pal. So when she says ‘read this book’, or ‘try this’, it doesn’t feel like a corporate mandate – it feels like your buddy saying ‘Hey, check this out’. That’s the brand’s success.”
Oprah’s personal success continued to rocket. She created Harpo Films, (mission statement: “to make movies that will open our hearts just a little wider”), a company making for-TV movies and big screen films including the Oscar-winning Precious. In 2000 she launched O magazine, a blend of self-help and self-exploration that now has a circulation of 2.35 million readers each month.
After being one of the first to spot the web’s potential in 1995 (when only a tiny fraction of American households had the internet), in 2008 Oprah created an online ‘webinar’ class that combined her book club, talk show and message boards. Nearly 600,000 viewers logged in, say Koehn and Helms, and the series was downloaded more than 35 million times in 149 countries. In 2010 she released an Oprah app, where fans can watch her show, read her Tweets, and take surveys.
All the while, Oprah was clever enough to spin these projects not as self-promotion, but driven by a sincere desire to help others. “The only reason to do anything at this point is to be of some service to other people,” she said in 1997 when she launched lifestyle book and CD, Make The Connection: 10 Steps To A Better Body And A Better Life, which sold over two million copies and spent 12 weeks at number one. “I’m already in millions of homes each day. I certainly have enough attention, enough money, enough fame. The only reason [to be so open] is that you can use your life experience to enlighten someone else’s.”
Wasn’t she diluting her message? No, says The Economist’s column, “Ms Winfrey is an experienced brand-stretcher. Each time she succeeded in extending her audience without alienating her most loyal fans.”