When Oprah Winfrey selected the second book for her reinstated Book Club—Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton's novel about racial division in South Africa—the reasoning was perfectly clear: After a three-week stay there last December, she fell passionately in love with the country, its people and its children.
And that passion has changed her show. Winfrey hasn't been this hot in five years. King World's The Oprah Winfrey Show
ratings are up 14% over last year. Her new sense of her herself is why she decided last year to re-up the show through the 2007-08 season.
"Africa filled me up," Winfrey told BROADCASTING & CABLE in an exclusive interview, a day before her return to Africa last week. "Being with those children filled me in a way that nothing else really has in my life. It's given me my true purpose, my 'true north,' as they say. That can't help but fuel the rest of your life. It gave me a renewed sense of energy, a renewed sense of place and purpose in the world."
Says Roger King, chairman and CEO of CBS Enterprises and King World Productions, "A television show is one thing, and then a human being is another.
"Oprah is a television show and a human being. She went there, and she was moved by poverty and kids who don't have parents because they died of AIDS. … It's inspirational and moving television."
Once the decision to continue doing the show was made, Winfrey and her production team—led by new executive producer Ellen Rakieten, a show vet who has been with Oprah
since 1986—set high goals.
"It's all about Oprah," Rakieten says. "When she decided to go forward to 2008, she committed to bringing her passion and unending enthusiasm with her. After 18 years, she's stronger than ever."
Says Winfrey about Rakieten, "Ellen knows the show as well as or better than I do. She's always tightening things, rearranging things. It's under her direction that we decided to have preshow meetings instead of post-show meetings, which we had done for years. But we're finding that advice and input is serving us better if it's given before the show. What has happened as a result is that many things I would have done last year have been cut."
The conscious decision to take the show to a new level produced immediate results. Oprah
was on fire out of the gate this season, opening with an exclusive interview with movie star-turned-gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, NBC News correspondent and Kennedy family member, Maria Shriver.
Oprah is not only up from last season, the show's lowest rated in five years, but also is up 6% over 1998, when it averaged a 6.2. For the week ended Nov. 23, the show averaged a 7.3 national household rating, in a daytime environment in which a 2 Nielsen rating is an achievement.
And, after 18 years, Oprah also is doing what other daytime shows long to do: get younger. This season, the show is up 42% among women 18-34 compared with two years ago. And it's up 36% among women 18-49, 33% among women 25-54.
"My whole team watches a lot of TV," Winfrey says. "They are very current and interested in keeping the show's finger on the pulse of what is happening in pop culture. That hasn't necessarily been one of my strong suits in previous years. Now the show is more celebratory. It celebrates life, not just figuring out what to do with your life."
Oprah's higher ratings also mean better lead-ins for stations' afternoon local newscasts.
"In syndication, I would say that Oprah is the best lead-in to news there has ever been," says Arnold Kleiner, president and general manager of KABC-TV Los Angeles, a station that promotes Winfrey's show every day. "My ego would not allow me to say that we wouldn't be No. 1 without Oprah, but she's a very important part of our day."
Station executives will line up to agree. "They are promoting the shows deeper into the week and doing a better overall job of promoting," says Valari Staab, general manager of KGO-TV San Francisco, which has seen 25% year-to-year growth in Oprah's ratings and 24% growth in the station's 5 p.m. news. "They also are packing each show full of content. They don't tail off at all."
With Oprah's improved ratings, stations that carry the show are also seeing the ratings increase for their afternoon newscasts, with KGO-TV, WPVI-TV Philadelphia and WFTV-TV Orlando, Fla., doing particularly well.
Sometimes, Winfrey gets prime time-size ratings, at 4 in the afternoon. "When Oprah interviewed Elizabeth Smart, she did it three days after Dateline did it, and she did it non-exclusively," says Harpo Productions President Tim Bennett. "When we went on the air with our interview three days later, we equaled the 9 million homes that Dateline
got, and we didn't even have the exclusive. Can you imagine if we had broken that story?"
Sources estimate the show earns some $6 million a week including domestic and international license fees and national advertising time, bringing in more than $300 million annually in revenues for Viacom-owned King World and Winfrey's Harpo Productions. The national ad rates are higher than some prime time shows, averaging $75,000 per 30-second spot, according to Nielsen estimates.
Next season, Winfrey will do 130 new shows, 15 fewer than she has the last two seasons but more than the 100 she had been contemplating. That schedule "was a mistake," she says. "You cannot remain competitive just doing 100. So I went to my team and said this is what it's going to take in order for us to stay in the game."
With more shows taking place on the road and no plans to really cut back, Winfrey is already "working harder than I've ever worked in my whole life.
"It's a lot easier to sit four talking heads in chairs and ask them how they feel about alcoholism or get someone on the show that is fighting with their sister or brother. But the types of shows we're doing this year require my engaged energy all the time.
"Last summer, Ellen said, 'Let's break down the wall.' She asked me if I was willing to step off the stage and do things like go to Costco or get on a plane to see the cast of Friends in L.A. She wanted me to get on a trapeze at one point, but that's where I draw the line."
At 49, Winfrey has built a media empire that includes her show, feature and TV movies, O magazine, part ownership of cable channel Oxygen, and part ownership of syndication's No. 2 talker, Dr. Phil. She is one of the world's richest people, according to Forbes magazine, with an estimated $1.1 billion fortune, part of which she has dedicated to philanthropy.
This month, viewers get several opportunities to see Winfrey in South Africa. On Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, Oprah originated from Johannesburg, where she attended a fundraising concert with Nelson Mandela.
On Dec. 17, Winfrey goes prime time in an ABC special with Diane Sawyer about her "Christmas Kindness" tour to South Africa last year, when she donated millions of dollars in food, toys, school supplies and clothes. She also is building a school—the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls South Africa—that she is totally involved in, from hiring the architect to establishing the curriculum. Her own show will do its take on the Christmas Kindness tour on Dec. 22.
"I think about the information that we share every day, about the feelings that we create and generate, and about the ability to see people in a different light," she says. "I think that is really valuable. Whenever we decide to hang it up, I think it will be really missed."