The future of Oprah

Stories from the Financial Times. 
Dec. 12 2010 7:17 AM

The Queen of Chat

Oprah is as much a professional as she is a diva.

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Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey

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."

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Oprah's tantalising promise to her audience, which has sustained The Oprah Winfrey Show as the No. 1 talk show on U.S. 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.

Audiences' early fascination with the young woman from Kosciusko, Miss., 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 $2.7 billion 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 U.S. 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 Web site, 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 $315 million 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 U.S. best-seller 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.