Expanding the Oprah Empire
Expanding the Oprah Empire
As her show has grown in popularity and scope, so has the number of projects that Winfrey and her Harpo Productions undertake. Owning her show in syndication gave her control over it. This, in turn, gave her freedom to control her time and schedule. For instance, taping shows, instead of always broadcasting them live, gives her greater flexibility.
She also has more freedom to choose future projects. As a result, Winfrey has been able to try her hand in many different areas. The "Oprah Empire" has thus expanded to include film, television, radio, the Internet, musicals, and print media.
Some projects have given Winfrey more chances to act, something she had wanted to do since she was little. For a long time her only opportunity had come during her days in Baltimore: a cameo on the soap opera All My Children. Its creator was a guest on Winfrey's show, which led to Winfrey's appearance on the soap opera—as herself, wearing the tidy Afro hairdo she then favored.
Winfrey's later success in The Color Purple had made her eager to do more acting. For example, she had a supporting role in a 1986 film adaptation of Native Son, Richard Wright's classic novel about a young black man in Depression-era Chicago. Winfrey's character was the young man's weary and beaten-down mother, and she joked that she was so busy and overworked that the role was not difficult to play: "Tired, honey. . . . I didn't have to stretch to play that character."39
Native Son was not a success, but Winfrey loved acting and felt she would be good at it. In fact, she once joked that her skills at mimicking people are so great that she had to avoid watching Phil Donohue's show—she was afraid she would start to look like him. (He is a white male with a thick head of white hair.) On a more serious note, she says, "I'm a good interviewer largely because I taught myself how. But I was born to act."40
Winfrey had another chance to act in 1998, when she produced and starred in a feature film adaptation of Beloved. This novel by author Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. It tells the powerful story of Sethe, a former slave in the years after the Civil War.
Sethe's story affected Winfrey powerfully, and she was honored to be able to make a movie of it. She wrote a book about the experience, Journey to Beloved. It includes excerpts from a journal she kept during the process, stunning black-and-white photos, and an essay by the movie's director, Jonathan Demme.
The film version of Beloved benefited from massive publicity, including two episodes of Winfrey's show that were dedicated solely to the film. It also got respectable critical reviews. However, audiences did not flock to it, and financially it was a failure. It lost an estimated $30 million.
More recently, Winfrey has provided voice-overs in two animated films, in each case playing the role of an animal. She was the voice of Gussie the Goose in Charlotte's Web (2006) and of Judge Bumbleden in Bee Movie (2007).
Through Harpo Productions, Winfrey has been extensively involved in producing shows for television beyond The Oprah Win-frey Show itself. One of the first of these, which aired in 1989, was The Women of Brewster Place. This was a made-for-television mini-series based on a novel by Gloria Naylor. In addition to producing it, Winfrey also played one of the seven women in the story whose lives intertwine in dramatic ways.
The Women of Brewster Place was not a success with audiences, and critics generally found it dull. Nonetheless, the next year an ongoing series, Brewster Place, was based on it. The series did even more poorly in the ratings than the miniseries. Its run ended after only a handful of episodes.
Another Winfrey production, in 2005, was more successful: a made-for-television movie, Their Eyes Were Watching God. It was based on a 1937 novel by the distinguished African American author Zora Neale Hurston about a black woman in Florida in the 1930s and her voyage of self-discovery. The movie starred Halle Berry and was adapted by a well-known playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks. It was popular, received good critical reviews, and was nominated for several awards.
More recently, Winfrey has produced several other projects. Among them were two 2007 releases: The Great Debaters (a feature film starring and directed by Denzel Washington) and For One More Day (made for television and based on a novel by Mitch Albom).
Not all of Winfrey's work has seen the light of day. For example, Harpo shot a pilot for a situation comedy based on Winfrey's life and work, in which she would have played herself. But the pilot disappointed her, and it never went into production.
Mostly, however, she has supported winning projects. One prominent example is the Dr. Phil show. Winfrey first became acquainted with psychologist Phil McGraw when she was in Texas preparing for a lawsuit that had been filed against her. At the time he ran a company, Courtroom Sciences, that specialized in consulting for trial lawyers.
Winfrey hired the firm to help her analyze the jury, and she was impressed with McGraw's abilities to understand people's motivations. She later invited "Dr. Phil" on her show several times, where he was extremely popular. He became a weekly guest, and she helped him start his own very successful program in 2002.
Winfrey acted again in 1997 with a small but telling role on the television situation comedy Ellen. Winfrey played the therapist to whom the character of the show's star, Ellen DeGeneres, reveals that she is a lesbian. The real-life DeGeneres made this news about herself public at the same time.
Soon afterward, theater critic Mark Steyn used the show as an example of Winfrey's widespread influence. He pointed out that Winfrey's involvement in a project was now a genuine mark of value. Speaking satirically, Steyn wrote, "Today, no truly epochal [very important] moment in the history of the Republic occurs unless it is validated by [Winfrey's] presence. When Ellen said, 'Yep! I'm gay,' Oprah was by her side, guesting on the sitcom as (what else?) the star's therapist."41
Moving beyond film and broadcast television, Winfrey has tried her hand in several other arenas. For example, she ventured into cable television by cofounding the Oxygen network. It is primarily devoted to women's issues and concerns. Oxygen debuted in 2000 and was bought by NBC in 2007.
Winfrey was also in the restaurant business for several years. In 1989 she became a co-owner of an upscale Chicago restaurant, the Eccentric. The high-profile establishment featured Italian, French, and American cooking, with an emphasis on healthy recipes for dieters. However, it experienced several changes in chefs and poor sales, and it closed in 1995.
Winfrey's growing empire has also embraced the world of Broadway musicals. Late in 2005 she coproduced a musical version of The Color Purple. (One of the show's other producers was Quincy Jones, who had "discovered" Winfrey many years before for her role in the movie.)
This version of The Color Purple featured a number of theatrical heavyweights, including playwright Marsha Norman, director Gary Griffin, and songwriters Brenda Russell, Stephen Bray, and Allee Willis. Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Color Purple, as the musical was officially titled, had a successful run on Broadway before beginning a series of national tours.
Winfrey and Rap
Winfrey has sometimes gotten into trouble with other celebrities over the years. For example, in 2006 several prominent rappers publicly criticized her. They accused the television host of having a bias against hip-hop music. One of them, Ludacris, said that Winfrey scolded him about his lyrics and edited out comments he made while on her show.
Winfrey responded by telling reporters that she liked some rap, but she opposed lyrics that put down women. She said she explained her position to Ludacris after his appearance. She also said she understood that his music was for entertainment purposes, but she worried that some of his listeners might take his words too literally and seriously.
In 2006 Winfrey moved into still another medium: radio. In an arrangement with XM Satellite Radio, she established a new twenty-four-hour channel, Oprah & Friends. It features many people familiar to regular viewers of Oprah, including Dr. Phil, Bob Greene (Winfrey's personal trainer), Gayle King, and Winfrey herself, offering a mix of talk, advice, and information.
Winfrey's expanding empire also includes an Internet presence. Her official Web site, Oprah.com, has up-to-date information, archived stories, and links to a wide variety of subjects. It has been extremely popular, averaging more than 70 million page views and more than 6 million users monthly.
Moreover, Winfrey has become a major presence in the publishing world. She is the name, face, and driving force behind one wildly successful magazine: O, The Oprah Magazine. She has also coauthored a number of books, all of them best sellers. They include Make the Connection: Ten Steps to a Better Body—and a Better Life, written with Bob Greene; and In the Kitchen with Rosie: Oprah's Favorite Recipes, for which she teamed up with her health-conscious chef, Rosie Daley.
Along with Winfrey's spectacular publishing successes have been occasional malfunctions. For example, Winfrey announced in 1993 that she had signed a deal to write her own story. She finished the eagerly awaited manuscript with help from coauthor Joan Barthel, then postponed its publication indefinitely.
She felt that she did a good job of presenting the bare facts of her life. But Winfrey worried that the book would not be a therapeutic or healing experience for readers. She said she realized that she was not yet settled in her mind about some difficult subjects. Winfrey comments, "I was writing in the book about forgiveness, and . . . I thought, 'I'm not clear on the issue myself.'. . . I thought, 'Have I really forgiven? And is it right for me to put this in a book? And what influence will it have on other people?' I had no real clarity myself so I felt I had no business writing it."42
For a program on public television in 2006, "Oprah's Roots" (part of the African American Lives series), Winfrey
had her DNA tested. This genetic test provided a lot of information about her ethnic background. The test determined that her maternal (mother's) line comes from the Kpelle ethnic group, from the area that today is Liberia, Africa. Her genetic makeup is 89 percent sub-Saharan African. The test indicated that she is also part Native American (about 8 percent) and East Asian (about 3 percent).
The show revealed many other interesting details about her family roots. For example, her grandfather, Elmore Winfrey, was involved in the civil rights movement in Mississippi, housing and helping volunteers working on voter registration. Also, it was discovered that her distant cousin is the famed gospel singer Mavis Staples.
Despite her stalled autobiography, Winfrey has tremendous power in the book world. She can sell millions of books for authors simply by inviting them to appear on her show. Indeed, Winfrey's clout in the publishing world—called "the Oprah Effect"—is so great that her ability to sell books is estimated at twenty times that of any other celebrity. D.T. Max, writing in the New York Times, calls Winfrey "the most successful pitch person in the history of publishing."43
The best example of this power is Oprah's Book Club. This regular feature on her show is modeled on the popularity of friends forming groups to discuss certain books. The idea came from one of Winfrey's producers, Alice McGee. The two often traded books and talked about them; then they realized they could expand the practice nationwide.
Winfrey understands that reading is essentially a solitary activity. But she also knows that it is a richer experience if the book is discussed with others. Cecilia Konchar Farr, a professor of English and women's studies, comments, "Oprah's Book Club is based on the same premise as Oprah's talk show—that novels, like sex, celebrities, and social problems, should be talked about."44
Oprah's Book Club was launched in 1996, and the results have been phenomenal. Since the club's debut in 1996, every book with an "O" on its cover, announcing that it is an Oprah pick, has sold more than a million copies. This began with Winfrey's very first choice: a novel by Jacquelyn Mitchard, The Deep End of the Ocean, about the terrible repercussions in a family after the kidnapping of a young child.
The club's choices have occasionally caused problems. One, picked late in 2001, was Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections. Franzen told reporters that he was somewhat dismayed at being chosen because he felt that many of Winfrey's previous picks were sentimental books with one-dimensional characters. An angry Winfrey promptly scratched Franzen from her list, but not before the media picked up on the story. Franzen tried to explain that he had not meant to be insulting, but the damage was done.
Soon afterward, Winfrey suspended the book club. She had always personally chosen each book, but now, she said, she could not maintain the pace. She could not read enough to find current books that were worth recommending every month.
Winfrey restarted the club in 2003, after a year off. For the new version, she decided to choose fewer books (three or four a year), with an emphasis on classics. Her first pick was Nobel Prize–winner John Steinbeck's East of Eden, a sprawling tale of two families in California's Salinas Valley first published in 1952. True to form, the book shot to the top of the best-seller list and stayed there—more than a half century after it first appeared.
A few years after restarting the book club, Winfrey expanded it to include a wider range of titles and types, including nonfiction, current novels, and memoirs. One of these books caused another controversy. James Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was billed as an account of the author's life as an alcoholic, drug-addicted criminal. But critics revealed that the supposedly true account was largely fictional. At first Winfrey defended Frey, saying that his book had moved many people. But in a live televised discussion, Winfrey severely scolded Frey, and the author admitted that he had lied about many things. A number of critics applauded Winfrey's tough approach to making Frey take responsibility for bending the truth.
Oprah's Book Club continues to be influential, if only because of its success in promoting reading. Writer Paul Harris comments, "Oprah is single-handedly persuading millions of Americans to switch off their televisions and read a book (and talk about it afterwards). Government cannot do that; Oprah can."45And writer Toni Morrison commented on Winfrey's show in 1997, "When a beloved television personality persuades, convinces, cajoles hundreds of thousands of people to read books, it's not just a revolution, it's an upheaval."46
As elements of the Oprah Empire, such as her book club, have grown, so has Winfrey's financial gain. As her money has grown, she has remained committed to giving much of it away.