Oprah Winfrey and I first met in 1984, when she was the new face on A.M. Chicago, an also-ran morning talk show on WLS, and I was the Chicago Sun-Times television critic. In those days, unlike today, you could walk down Michigan Avenue with Winfrey and not have to stop every 10 feet so pedestrians and drivers hanging out of car windows could wish her well. Back then, she could tell the story about having a cockroach as a pet when she was a kid, and you hadn't heard it before. We had lunch one day, and on the way back to work, she stopped at a shoe store to window-shop.
In 1986, she took her act to NATPE and walked away with a syndication deal to appear in 113 markets—and Oprah as a national phenomenon was launched. I interviewed her at that NATPE convention, and she recalled—in an anecdote that was subsequently much repeated in the press—that, when she decided to take a chance by leaving a TV job in Baltimore to seek her fortune in Chicago, her bosses had told her that she'd never make in the Windy City, that she'd get “run over by a train.”
That's some train. Now, according to Forbes, she's worth $1.3 billion, the 213th-richest person in the nation. Her reading club turned Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina into a bestseller in 2004, just 130 years after it was published. Last fall, she gave away 276 Pontiacs to her audience—making all other product placement seem like the Amateur Hour. In the super-competitive women's-magazine field, her O, The Oprah Magazine is profitable not even five years after it began.
Winfrey dominates daytime television, as she has almost from her first year in syndication in 1986. She has a deal for prime time movies on ABC. To millions of fans, her word is gospel, and they'll pay for it. Thousands of women have attended her inspirational lectures; thousands more spend $24.95 for an interactive, multimedia workshop about improving their lives, available off her Web site.
The Oprah Winfrey Show rakes in $6 million a week in domestic and international licensing for her Harpo Productions and Viacom-owned King World, which syndicates the show. That works out to more than $300 million a year.
She says she's still the same “Opie.” When she's at her spectacular new home in California, Von's Supermarket is her favorite place to be. “I don't play that 'Oh my God, no, I can't go out' trip,” she says. “I walk my own dogs. I pick up my own dog poop.” But don't expect others to be so eager to talk about her. Her staffers sign a strict covenant not to talk about her or the show, and she has successfully gone to court to enforce it.
Winfrey's also a part owner of women's cable network Oxygen, and Harpo owns part of Dr. Phil, one of daytime television's few recent syndicated hits. She likes to dress to the nines, but her philanthropy, through the Angel Network and her self-named foundation, doles out millions to women and children.
Winfrey, who will be inducted into the NAACP Image Hall of Fame in March, will celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Oprah Winfrey Show in September. It's an awesome achievement at a time when syndication is sliced and diced by cable competition.
Probably her biggest attraction: her affectionate honesty. She doesn't deny the wealth, and her loyal viewers watched her earn it. She talks to them; they connect with her because, no matter how rich, she's still a whole lot homespun, as I rediscovered in our conversation two weeks ago:
The reason we want to do this story is that, when you look at who's out there in television, you're transcategorical. What are you? Performer? Magazine editor? Talk-show host? Businesswoman?
What am I? That's an interesting question. What am I? It's interesting. I would not have used any of those words to describe myself.
I know. As a matter of fact, none of them seem right.
I just was going out of the country, and when I landed in Norway, [I had] to state [my] occupation. I sat there for 10 minutes trying to figure out who am I, what do I do?
I mean, if you say talk-show host, I go, well, that doesn't sound right because it really is so much more than that. Entrepreneur—well, that sounds pretty pretentious.
You know what I ended up putting? Self-employed. I swear, I was so stumped by a regular customs question. I was, like, okay, well, do I say actress? No, I'm really not. I've only done two films, and that's pretty pretentious. I'm literally just sitting there going, “Oh God, how do I even describe myself? I don't even know.” So I finally wrote, “Self-employed.”
Well, let's stay with the talk show for a second. With a couple of exceptions, one of which you've created—Dr. Phil—does the general lack of quality syndicated talk shows surprise you?
What surprises me is that everybody believes that they have a way to come out with what has already been done and done and redone and overdone, and that suddenly they're going to do it in a way that hasn't been done.
What surprises me is that there seem to be no new ideas. I learned this early in my career doing the news. You choose Eyewitness News versus Action News versus Fox News versus whatever based on a connection to the people who are broadcasting. Broadcasting is broad, it really is, as I see it, either broad connection or missed connection.
And so I understand what I do, because I am very comfortable with myself. I get paid for being myself on television, and that connects to a lot of people because people see themselves in me as I see myself in other people.
So people know whom they're getting. It's a familiarity thing.
Yeah. Ultimately, our show is topic-driven, but there is a baseline audience that will get you a 5 rating no matter what. But you cannot create another Oprah, another [Dr. Phil McGraw], another Ellen [Degeneres], another Rosie [O'Donnell], because these are people who have their own personalities coming from a sense of truth. You know the thing we love so much about Ellen is she's Ellen. Oh my God, that opening monologue and the dance. You don't care who is on there, you just want to see Ellen be Ellen.
And so that's what I understood early on when I first started thinking about the idea that Phil maybe could be on his own. Even before I thought he could be on his own, I thought he had to find a way to be himself, and himself is direct and blunt. Sometimes he hurts your feelings. So that's why I started out by saying to the audience, “He is just a tell-it-like-it-is guy, this is who he is.”
Because of Dr. Phil, no doubt King World's Roger King wants you to help him develop new shows.
Roger is always saying, “Let's do something, we need to work together.” And I would like to do that, but it has to feel natural for me. I mean, early—maybe six seasons ago—people were saying to me we need to come up with the next Oprah. And I said, “We didn't come up with this one.”
But syndication often takes good ideas and beats them to death. Didn't you have a general feeling about syndication when you were getting into it?
Not many remember this, but I was syndicated for not even a season when I was doing this show called People Are Talking in Baltimore; Richard Sher and I were syndicated. We went to NATPE probably in 1977 or '78. As a matter of fact, I still have the syndication contract where I was going to be offered $10,000 more per city.
That was added?
After the first 50 cities. After 50 cities! So that, if you got the entire market, I think I got a total of $75,000 more. This was in my original contract. Aren't we glad that deal didn't work? My God. So I was originally syndicated for this People Are Talking show with no support, obviously no infrastructure. It failed. So that was my understanding of what syndication was.
When Roger King then approached me about syndication [in 1985], I was, like, “Okay, I've already been down that road.” Roger was like [here Winfrey adopts a sort of low, singsongy voice to mimic King], “Well, you're going to be rich, girl. I can tell you this right now. I hope you can handle all the money. You're going to be really rich.” And my experience with syndication had been that it never really occurred to me that this was something to do to get rich.
Well, you got really rich.
I remember the first million-dollar check that came in. Somewhere there's a picture of me holding the check, me and Gayle [King, a longtime friend who now is editor-at-large of Winfrey's magazine]. And we were just like, “Oh my God, it's a million dollars!” To [former Winfrey agent and attorney] Jeff Jacobs' credit, when he sat down and made the deal, we'd already made the deal of ownership with ABC, and then we made the deal for sharing the percentage with King World.
It was an amazing deal, almost unheard of at the time.
I think, honestly, that no one expected—including King World—that we would be sold in as many markets, nor have the backend, nor get the barter—all of that stuff. Otherwise, I don't know if they would've been as generous. But we were saying, the higher that number goes, the more of a percentage we want. So King World didn't expect it, and I didn't expect it.
I remember reading in the first year I was syndicated that I was going to make $11 million that year and I'm like, “Well, I don't know what they're talking about.” As it turned out, I ended up making even more than that. But no, it never occurred to me that the money portion of it would ever do what it has done. But having the greater percentage, starting out with 50%, was a good idea.
But your success wasn't so surprising. You beat Donahue within the first year you were in Chicago.
I never doubted the connection to the people. What has been the big surprise is how much money was to be made. Now, that has been stunning [laughing].
In most cities, your show is on in the afternoon, but in Chicago it's still on at 9 a.m., the way God intended it.
It's so funny that you say that because, you know, several years ago, I was offered three times the money to change it [to the afternoon] here.
You turned that down?
Yeah. Because that 9 a.m. audience made this all possible.
They wanted to move you to the CBS station, WBBM, right? [King World and CBS are now commonly owned by Viacom.]
They wanted it in the afternoon, and they were going to pay three times the amount of money because it was going to be a lead-in to their news. And I wouldn't do it, because I don't know the people who are watching but I feel a sense of crazy loyalty. Like, no, [I'm staying with] the 9:00 audience on WLS. That audience made this show.
A little while ago, I was reading a 1997 edition of Broadcasting & Cable, and the headline was how you might not renew. That was the headline every year for a few years. Now, all of the sudden, you're going to do it till 2011. What snapped?
That's an interesting question. Okay, what happened. For many of the years, I thought my staff was beleaguered and was overworked and burning themselves out. And so, in all of my decision-making, I was looking to whether or not I would be able to continue, because I didn't know if we would be able to continue.
So I decided to look at the internal infrastructure of how we were operating and tried to build from within so you could just nurture people from the production positions to producer positions.
For so long, we were just four girls and a gay guy in the room. We used to applaud ourselves because we had so few people. The first time I went to The Tonight Show and there were 40 people on staff, I came back and said, “Can you believe it? They have 40 people!” Well, we did with 10 what they did with 40, and we used to think that was a good thing, you know? Because we were saving money. And it burned out a lot of people.
These shows can grind you down.
No, I don't feel any of that now. What I now feel is reenergized by a vision of empowerment in the ability to use television in a way that I know can be even more profound. To use the connection that I have established over the years with the viewers in such a way that lets them think about themselves differently, be moved to their own personal greatness. That's the goal for me.
Assuming that you really are done in 2011, when the show will be 25 years old, do you then intend to just go hang, or are you going to do something else?
By that time I would have put enough other shows into development, hopefully. If not, that would be unfortunate because I believe that we are in a position now to see talent—and a lot of people come through here—to see talent and develop talent in a way that I could not have done 10 years ago. I was just trying to keep my own head above water with the staff, just trying to grow the show into what it now currently is, what it has become.
And that works for you.
That's what works for me. And I can tell you, listen, I've been to those broadcasting conventions where you have all those muckety-muck moguls sitting around, and not everybody is in the business because they have some kind of moral code. I am in many ways shamed by some of the things that we now allow on television. I don't know what happened to the standards on television. There is a show called Who's Your Daddy?
You know what I thought about that? I thought, well, the very idea, the very idea. It leaves me speechless—the paternity tests that some talk-show hosts do!
And I know, in the early years, we were accused of, and certainly did, confrontational television. And I'll tell you the moment it occurred to me, the moment I thought, “This is not helping anybody.” I always had the intent—even sitting up there with the Ku Klux Klan—I always had the intent that I was sharing information that would be meaningful. Like, “Oh, people need to see who these people are.” One day, during a commercial break, I realized, “Nobody needs to see this.”
What about the debate over our conservative values or our moral values or our lack of moral values?
I think this, and what I know for sure, if I may quote myself, is that everybody is looking for value and validation. That's the common thread. That is the common denominator. That is the biggest lesson I've learned from every show [topic], from child abuse to Victoria's Secret fashions.
In this last election…
You're trying to go political, and I won't.
But not really too political. I'm just curious to know: Is your audience a red or a blue audience? Liberal or conservative? Is it an audience that is divided over the issues of the campaign?
If I were to run for office—which I never will; I know you should never say never, but never. But if I were to run for office, I wouldn't even be using those terms of conservatives and liberals. In this audience, there are some reds, and there are some blues, but when they come here, they become purple. The color purple. They are looking to create a life of value for themselves. And the way to bring people together is to show them how you can do that and how your sense of values doesn't have to conflict with mine, that we can come together in such a way that you and I can both find purpose and meaning in our lives and work together.
That is what I would do if I were the politician. I wouldn't continue to try to divide the country because [we're] conservative and religious-based and this is our God. The people who are liberals also believe in God and a God that wants them to be able to prosper in life and do well and take care of their family. Liberals don't not care about their children. So I think [we need a] person who can find a way to bring that together and understand that everybody is looking for value and to be able to create value in their lives.
You're probably the only talk-show host who has built a virtual ministry around your show. What talk-show host talks like that?
I sincerely believe that it is a platform that has been given to me from a power that's greater than myself. I look at my history and my background and how this all sort of happened. I understood somewhere, after '98-'99, that it wasn't mine to play with. It wasn't mine to say, “Oh, I don't know if I feel like it.” It was a calling bigger than a job on television.
So your attitude changed. And your ratings are spiking.
The fact that the number went up is in direct response to how I feel about what we're doing. And reenergizing of the staff. I mean we have [executive producer] Ellen Rakieten, who has been here since before we were syndicated, since she was 23 years old, and she was always one of my greatest producers. She was always the producer who could take a word and turn it into a show. You know, [she'd say], “We ought to do something around “thank you,” and so we'd create a “Thank You Day.” “Favorite Things” came from her, and “Acts of Kindness” came from her. So the idea to make her executive was a great move because her energy sort of has permeated the rest of the building and everybody is wired.
We've been on longer than Bonanza, and I would have to say this past year was the best year I've ever experienced on television, with the exception of the first year.
Based on what? On how you just dug it more?
I just dug it, yeah. And I haven't dug it that much since the first years. Because it was such a variety of different kinds of shows. It was, first of all, starting off with the cars, which a lot of people say was some great big stunt. It was not a stunt, and I resent the word stunt, so don't use it.
That was the season-premiere show where you gave away 276 Pontiac G6 autos to the studio audience. Seems like a stunt, but okay.
It was not a stunt. But starting off with the season premiere with the cars came about because I had been approached to put those cars on my “Favorite Things” show, and I said, “Well, first of all, I can't do that because that's not my favorite car.”
I understand. You like other cars more than Pontiacs.
I'd be lying. And so then that puts the whole brand—I never like to use that word—but it puts the whole brand of “Favorite Things” or the whole idea of “Favorite Things” in question. If you ever once put something on saying that it is one thing when it really is another, then you can never be trusted again, in my opinion.
First, I said, “Well, forget it because it can't be done, it's not my favorite thing and I'm not going to say that it is.” And then the producers come back, and they say, “Do you understand what we're saying? They want to give everybody in the audience a car! Are you saying you don't want to do that?” I said I wanted to do it if the people needed a car. So then we started working with that idea. How do we find people who need cars so that it's not just about a car giveaway. And that was the kernel of meaning for me that allowed that show to go ahead.
So you figured out a way to do the giveaway that would also be a way of doing a good deed.
If you are walking to work in the rain because you don't have transportation, or taking two buses and being late, that is a life-changing gift for you.
For all the people who say, “Oh, you didn't personally pay for the cars yourself,” which I heard, I say, “Well, I could have, and what difference does it make? What difference does it make, if they got the cars? And why should I have paid for them if Pontiac was willing to do so?” I could take that $7 million and go to Africa, which is exactly what it cost me to go to Africa when I went for Christmas Kindness for the Kids. So I don't get hung up on that.
But the Pontiac story brings up a point. You said you've learned how to be a business person, which was new for you. So there must be times when there are good business reasons for you to do things on your show that aren't necessarily things that Oprah Winfrey the person feels comfortable with. I'm curious about how you deal with wearing two hats.
Let me just stop you right there. I am guided by my own personal internal compass, period. And that is for everything that I do.
Now, some people are, many people are not. And all of my decisions in my personal life and in my public life and in my business life are based upon what is going to have meaning, and I make all of them with an intention to have some kind of meaning.
So if it doesn't work with my personal internal compass, then it ain't gonna work for my business. And I could say this has happened with the [O] magazine more so than TV. I can't even think of a situation where this has happened with television. Except maybe with the cars. The cars.
So when you shower your audience with your “Favorite Things,” those are really truly your favorite things? But the people who make those things ...
So help me God.
But the people who make those things, they do pay to be on your show, don't they?
No. They give you the products, that's how they pay. This is how it works: If I could go to my Blackberry right now… All year long, if I see something or run across something or somebody else tells me about something, I keep a little running list of things that I like. So on that list, for example, last year were Tommy Hilfiger blue boots, a certain hand cream that I like, that Movado watch that, the first time I saw it I liked it so much, I bought myself two. And so I keep this running list. Some of the things are in O magazine. We have a running list there every month, and all of those things have to come through me.
I keep a running list and, around October, the producers come in with a list of things that they have seen. Originally, it just started out with only the things that I have found. Now other people do help me look for things that could possibly be favorite things.
Somebody told me about that washing machine. I'm like, “I want that washing machine for myself because it dries your sweaters!” You know? People think that advertisers or these companies are approaching me and that they pay to have these things on. That is absolutely not the truth. It works in reverse.
And who would say no?
I approach them, and let me tell you, there are a number of people, which I could tell you, which maybe I won't tell you, who turn me down. Like, for example, this year—I could not believe this—but my deal is only this: If I'm going to say it's my favorite thing because it is my favorite thing, all you have to do is give me 300 of them, okay? So this year, there was this book that somebody had given to me, a book called The Way We Live. It was a great coffee-table book, and it had pictures from all over the world of different homes and how people live in all these different homes. Do you know that we called the publisher and they said no? And they said no!
And did they say why?
They said they didn't have that many books to give away for free, because I think the book itself is [expensive] if you buy it in the stores. Can you believe that? They did, and so you know what I said? “Well, it's not going to be my favorite thing no more!” But how dumb is that? That's pretty dumb. It's a book! How many books could you have sold? It's a beautiful book.
But you could afford it. You could afford all of your favorite things in the whole world. Which leads to the next point. You have this constant message of self-empowerment, but I've heard people say, “Well, it's easy for Oprah to say, hey, if you want to be something, go be something or do something or lose weight or whatever, because Oprah is very rich.” The regular people watching this show really can't change their lives as easily as you say you can. You must hear this.
I know what you're trying to say. I don't buy it. I don't buy that for one moment, nor has that been my personal experience. My personal experience has been—for example, when I go around the country and I do these “Live Your Best Life” seminars—that people understand on a real core level that I get it and they get me. It's either you feel it or you don't. So what I know is that all celebritydom, all fame, all attention, all adoration only says this is possible. So the fact that I admire Nelson Mandela's strength and courage and wisdom and his humility simply means it is possible to be strong and to be courageous and to be wise and to also be humble.
And what I get probably more than anybody I know is that the fame thing is something that happens outside of yourself. I don't make myself famous. I'm only famous because other people said I was famous, and that really doesn't have anything to do with me. That's something other people have said.
And so to answer your question more specifically, people see where I've come from. They see who I am and understand that, because of where I've come from and who I am—not [because of] what I have, because in your question you confused the two—they see who I am, and that's very different than what I have.