Chapter 3: Oprah Winfrey
‘I will never, never, as long as I’m black, I will never give up my power to another person.’
One morning in 1990, seventeen million Americans were, as usual, watching The Oprah Winfrey Show on TV. Oprah was talking to four ordinary people who had all had problems at work. They each told a story of greedy companies, selfish bosses and lazy colleagues, while Oprah asked them questions, smiled and listened carefully. Many of the stories were familiar to the people across the US who were watching Oprah’s show. Oprah’s viewers were mostly ordinary Americans, and many of them had experienced similar problems in their offices, shops and factories. To these people, Oprah was one of them. She had come from a poor family and she had had a tough childhood. She had had to fight for everything in her life. Oprah seemed to be someone who had suffered the same problems as they had and who saw things in the same way.
So everyone was looking forward to some fun when Oprah introduced her next guest. He was a writer on business called Harvey McKay. You could see immediately that McKay would be on the side of the bosses. He would try to explain why they often behaved badly towards ordinary workers. He would try to explain why the bosses earned such a lot of money, while ordinary people earned so little. And then Oprah would have her chance to ask him a few difficult questions. She would tell him how ordinary people felt about big business.
But Harvey McKay surprised everyone. He didn’t just talk and give answers; he started asking Oprah questions about her life.
‘It seems to me,’ he said to her after a few minutes, ‘that you’re a tough but fair boss.’
Oprah looked pleased and called to the people who helped her at the back of the stage, ‘I’m very fair, aren’t I, girls?’
For many of Oprah’s viewers, this was an interesting moment. They had watched her shows every day for many years and they thought they knew most things about her. They had heard about her problems as a child whose parents had separated. They had listened to her tell them about her relationships. They even knew what she ate and that she had often tried to lose weight. But Oprah was also a boss, and that idea was new and interesting to many of them. When they thought about it, it was clear that Oprah was much more than just a friendly woman on a popular talk show.
Oprah didn’t just appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show – she owned The Oprah Winfrey Show. That meant that she earned a lot of money from the advertisements in the breaks in the programme. She also owned the studios where they made her show. It was one of the best TV production centres in the US, and it had cost around $20 million. In fact, her company, Harpo Productions, gave Oprah control over her life and over the lives of many other people. In the entertainment business, Oprah’s love of control was famous; although she was very busy, she signed every cheque for her company, so she always knew exactly how every cent was spent.
It was perhaps strange that Oprah had become so interested in controlling her life; she had started in talk shows because she was so out of control. Her first jobs were as a newsreader for small radio and TV stations in the south of the US in the early 1970s. In those days, it was quite unusual for Americans to see a black woman reading the TV news, and in 1976 she was offered a job with a much bigger TV station in the city of Baltimore. Everyone thought she looked great on TV, but she didn’t have the right character to be a good journalist. She always became too involved in the stories. When stories were sad, she sometimes started to cry. When the stories were happy, she was clearly happy too.
‘This is crazy,’ her bosses said. ‘We have to find this woman another job.’
At the time, the TV station wanted to introduce a morning talk show; this would give the people of Baltimore a chance to appear on TV and discuss their opinions. The show was called People Are Talking. As Oprah clearly understood people so well, perhaps she would be the right person to present this programme. It could be a much better use of her skills than reading the news.
Many TV interviewers prepare questions before an interview and then don’t really listen to the answers of their guests during the show. But Oprah was very different. She was always interested in what people said. She had real conversations with the people that she interviewed. Soon, her bosses in Baltimore realized that Oprah was a star.
Oprah’s show was so successful that, after a few years, TV bosses in other parts of the country started to notice her. In 1983, a big TV station in Chicago asked her to present their morning talk show, A.M. Chicago. They offered her a four-year contract and said that they would pay her $200,000 a year. It was a lot of money, but Oprah was worried about moving to Chicago. She didn’t need to be, because when she arrived there she immediately felt at home.
‘Just walking down the street, I knew I belonged there,’ she said.
The people of Chicago also felt that she belonged to them. Her talk show started in January 1984, and it was an immediate hit. People loved her direct, personal style of interviewing and, within a few months, her programme was the most popular morning show in the city. Her boss at the TV station was very happy. ‘Oprah hit Chicago like a bucket of cold water,’ he said. ‘She just took over the town.’
Oprah was a star in one of the biggest cities in the US, but she now wanted to become a national star. Her opportunity came when she got a call from Steven Spielberg. Spielberg was one of the most important people in the Hollywood film industry; he had made several successful films, including E. T. He now wanted to make a film of a book by the black American writer, Alice Walker, called The Color Purple.
‘Would you like to play a part in the film?’ he asked her.
Oprah couldn’t refuse. The Color Purple was one of her favourite books, and she also knew that a part in a Hollywood film would make her famous around the world. But she was so busy with A.M. Chicago that she had no time to do any other work. Oprah wanted to be in the film so much that she was ready to leave her job with the TV station. But her business manager, Jeffrey Jacobs, had other ideas.
‘We can work this out,’ he told her. ‘The TV station will have to give you a break from the show.’
Oprah’s bosses weren’t very happy about the situation, but they didn’t want to lose her and they could also see that the film could bring a lot of public attention to her show. They agreed to give her a break of several weeks so she could work on The Color Purple.
Oprah was very grateful to the TV station, but the experience also helped her to see that there were a few problems with her present contract. If she really wanted to become a star, she needed more control over her life. But how could she get this?
Jeffrey Jacobs realized that if Oprah wanted to control her life, she first needed to get control of her programme. At that time it was only broadcast in the Chicago area, but he thought that it should be possible to broadcast it right across the country. He knew that when The Color Purple arrived in the cinemas, Oprah was going to become an international star. Lots of people outside Chicago would want to see her show.
Oprah decided to negotiate with the TV station. First, she made them change the name of the programme to The Oprah Winfrey Show. Then she asked for a share of the money from sales of her show to other TV stations. It was a great business decision. When The Color Purple came out, the film was a big success and everybody admired Oprah’s performance. As a result, they all wanted to watch her TV show too. One hundred and thirty eight TV stations across the US bought The Oprah Winfrey Show, and suddenly her earnings jumped from $200,000 a year to $30 million a year!
Oprah’s decision had made her rich, and it had also taught her an important lesson: control was needed for real success. So in 1986 she started her own company, called Harpo Productions. (‘Harpo’ is ‘Oprah’ spelled backwards.) At first, it was just to create publicity for her show and to answer letters from viewers, but Oprah had big plans for her new company. In 1988, she started to negotiate with the bosses of the Chicago TV station again. This time she wanted Harpo Productions to buy The Oprah Winfrey Show from them. The TV station bosses weren’t happy. They knew that Harpo would still allow them to broadcast the show, but the deal meant that they were losing control of their most important programme. As negotiations continued it became clear that, if necessary, Oprah was prepared to walk away from her show and go to work in Hollywood. The TV station bosses realized they had no choice; they had to give Oprah what she wanted.
As she now owned her own show, Oprah needed a place where she could record it. So she bought an old TV and film production centre in west Chicago for $10 million. She then spent another $10 million on new equipment to make sure that Harpo Studios was the best production centre in the city. Oprah could now make her shows at times which suited her and she could also make more money from them. But her studio allowed her to do much more than that. In 1988, Harpo Productions started making other programmes for TV, like The Women Of Brewster Place, and soon other companies were using Harpo Studios to make advertisements, films and TV shows.
In recent years Oprah’s business has continued to expand in many different areas of the entertainment industry. Ordinary people, especially American women, trust her and understand her ideas and beliefs. They see her as an honest person from a tough background who has fought for her success. This means that many people are happy to buy products that carry Oprah’s name. This has given Oprah many great business opportunities. In 1998 she created a company called Oxygen Media, which produces TV programmes for women and children and makes similar material for the Internet. She also has two women’s magazines and her own film company.
Today, Oprah is the most powerful woman in the world’s entertainment industry and also the most highly paid. Over the past few years, business magazines have regularly put her in their lists of top American businesswomen. At the same time, The Oprah Winfrey Show has continued to be as successful as ever – not just in the US, but also in many other countries around the world. Because Oprah is now in control of her life, she has also found time to act in several more Hollywood films. And as her business has grown, Oprah has become richer and richer. In 2004, the year of her fiftieth birthday, she became America’s first black billionaire.[/sociallocker]