What if Oprah got it wrong?
It is, to be sure, a heretical thought, rudely defiant of the media-wise belief that Oprah Winfrey’s announced move from broadcast television to basic cable (when her syndication contract runs out in 2011) is an inspired act of genius in the brave new world of niche programming.
“Tom Brokaw walking away from the evening news at age 62, in my opinion, made a major mistake. Because he lost his platform and he has said to people that he retired too early and that he never should have done it.”
The Oprah Winfrey Network—not coincidentally nicknamed OWN—makes perfect sense (or so conventional wisdom decrees) at a time when mass-market free television is losing viewers, advertising revenue, and ultimate viability, while the audience migrates to cable, the Internet, video on demand, cellphones, and other technologies that facilitate the cherry-picking of preferred content. So far nobody seems to have mentioned “synergy”—a word that fell out of fashion with the AOL-Time Warner merger.
And yet, by walking away from her proven success as the No. 1 daytime television host for the vague promise of something bigger and richer, Oprah is taking a colossal risk. Even with declining ratings, her current broadcast audience will dwarf her future cable numbers. Assuming she’s able to fix the many internal problems at OWN—whose planned launch has been delayed by structural disorganization, confused vision, and high turnover (“it’s sort of a wreck,” said a high-level source in the extended Oprah empire)—will she come up with the secret formula to attract and keep the right advertiser-friendly viewers?
Click Image To View Our Gallery Of The Hazards For Stars Who Walk Away On Top
Launching a new cable channel isn’t easy—witness Oprah’s vaunted participation in the less-than-triumphant Oxygen network (a role that Oprah’s revisionist supporters now seek to minimize to “passive investor”). Oxygen started a decade ago with high hopes of offering spiritually enhancing prestige programming for women, consistent with the Oprah brand; it has devolved into trashy reality shows such as Dance Your Ass Off and Tori & Dean, leavened by—seriously—infomercials for dildos.
Then again, what will become of Oprah’s peerless influence on the popular culture? The media firmament is littered with megastars who left a sure thing, either by choice or coercion, only to see their candlepower dim and their relevance fade away. Jerry Seinfeld is now a bit player on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Rosie O’Donnell is hosting a radio show. Howard Stern is on satellite. Tom Brokaw is political analyst on MSNBC. And Ted Koppel—has anybody seen him lately?
“When you walk away from your platform, you put yourself in danger that all of a sudden you're not in the public consciousness,” warned one well-known talent representative who does deals for top-drawer talent. “Tom Brokaw walking away from the evening news at age 62, in my opinion, made a major mistake. Because he lost his platform and he has said to people that he retired too early and that he never should have done it. There are a lot of people like this.”
The talent representative continued: “Once Joan Lunden was gone from Good Morning America, that was the end of it. She lost the platform. People weren't interested in her… Howard Stern was in everybody's consciousness and then he went to Sirius and made a fortune, but you don't hear much about him anymore.…The way you maintain the attention of the public is for the public to constantly see you. Oprah loves being Oprah and when she's off the air and running her empire and not in the public eye every minute, it's going to be an adjustment.”
A media universe without Oprah’s dominating presence is, admittedly, hard to fathom. But let’s try. When she finally decamps for good from her Chicago penthouse, imagine her behind the guarded gates of her fabulous estate in Montecito, California, living in splendid isolation, far away from the prying eyes of TMZ, maybe playing a game of whist in the sunroom with Stedman and Gayle when she erupts like Norma Desmond: “I’m still big! It’s the networks that got small.”
“Oprah is going to a growing enterprise where she can make more money potentially,” says Ken Auletta. “She's leaving a listing ship and getting on a rocket ship.”
Still, Oprah is more than just a megastar. “She’s gone from priestess to goddess,” said a well-known media executive, “and her army will follow her wherever she goes.” When OWN finally debuts in January 2011—the just-announced official launch date—and Oprah moves her Harpo Productions to L.A., a short helicopter hop from her Montecito mansion, “this town will bow down to her and treat her like the queen she is,” a well-connected media buyer predicted. The buyer noted that cable systems (through which OWN, a replacement for Discovery’s existing Health channel, will immediately reach 80 million households) are ready to pay a premium to carry Oprah’s channel while advertisers will flock to the Oprah brand.
• Rebecca Dana: Oprah's Kremlinologist• Gallery: The Oprahs of the World• More Daily Beast contributors on Oprah's exitIt is testament to Oprah’s scary power that hardly anyone is willing to be quoted about her—even worshipfully—by name. The New Yorker’s resident media expert, Ken Auletta—author of Googled: The End of the World As We Know It—is one who is, and he’s also bullish on Oprah. “I think there is real meaning in what she’s done,” he said. “She’s basically saying that the future is not broadcast television… The only two traditional forms of media that are growing are games and cable networks… so Oprah is going to a growing enterprise where she can make more money potentially… She's leaving a listing ship and getting on a rocket ship.” Auletta added: “Is it possible it will fail? Sure. But then she has several choices, which include retiring or going back to network television which will welcome her with open arms.”
On the other hand, Oprah’s much-touted “halo effect” works miracles only up to a point. She isn’t, it turns out, invulnerable to the market forces of public taste, and her ratings have dropped commensurately with the rest of broadcast television. And, if accurate, her recent comment "to insiders" published by industry gossip Nikki Finke—“Why would anybody stay in Chicago? It's freezing here, and I have a mansion in Montecito”—would suggest that she’s only human, and can empathize just so much with her less fortunate fans.
Whatever happens, Oprah personally will be fine. She’s a multibillionaire; her eponymous magazine, a joint venture with Hearst, is down but still doing better than most; she has bounced back from the scandal and fixed the troubles at her South African leadership academy for girls; and she remains the sole owner of the Oprah show archives, ripe for repurposing on OWN.
“There are really two decisions she’s made, and they are separate,” said a person familiar with Oprah’s thinking. “One is, she is committed to starting OWN. The other is, she felt that this was the time to end the show, and I think she would have done that whether or not she had the OWN opportunity. The show has been wearing on her, it’s pretty all-consuming. She’s done it for 25 years. And she wants to do a bunch of other things, including philanthropy. The assumption that she has to keep this national platform into perpetuity or else she’s never going to be watched, that wasn’t her goal in the first place. She’s isn’t going to be the queen of talk shows anymore. That’s not what she wants to do.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.