Oprah Winfrey is a unique phenomenon. There is no way around her exceptional talents, her business enterprise being valued at 2.3 billion US$ and her shows being aired in many countries around the globe. Here’s how Vanity Fair described her influence on our culture and lifestyle: “Oprah Winfrey arguably has more influence on the culture than any university president, politician or religious leader, except perhaps the Pope”. I think that about sums it up.
While opinions about Oprah vary, she has succeeded in creating a brand name and marketed it very effectively through different media. Oprah discusses issues that appeal to people around the world, covering subjects from health scare to artists, and from her favourite anti-ageing cream to fashion. A recent Business week article refers to this as the Oprah effect: any topic that is associated with Oprah instantly raises public interest.
How did it all start?
Oprah Winfrey was born in rural Mississippi. She had a tough start growing up with her grandmother and ending up pregnant by the age of 14. Then, she turned it all around. At the age of 19 she entered the world of media and started to work for a local evening news program. Then in 1983, she started to host a low rating morning show and within months she took it to the highest rating program in Chicago. This show was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show, and eventually went on national television to become the number one day time show. Then Oprah launched her own production company.
Transmedia storytelling? Oprah is the story…
Harpo Productions, Inc. (Oprah’s name spelled backwards) was the main base for the many ways in which Oprah approached and targeted the market, using multiple media channels to broadcast her social entertainment agenda.
Harpo Productions, Inc. produces the highest-rating talk show in American television history. Eight and a half million viewers are typical for first screenings, while repeats attract another four and a half million viewers. It is also the longest-running daytime television talk show in the United States (as announced this year, the show will end with its 25th season on September 9th 2011). Aside from the US the show is broadcast in 145 countries worldwide
In addition, Harpo Productions, Inc. has created other programs that were originally an integral part of the daily Oprah Winfrey show. These include the health focused Dr. Oz Show and the psychology program of Dr. Phil, both of which attract a large audience on a daily basis. Another spin-off is the culinary show of Rachel Ray. The Oprah Winfrey Show’s website acts as a portal to each of these now separate programs.
As well as hosting and appearing on television shows, Winfrey co-founded the women's cable television network Oxygen and she created a channel on You Tube that shows clips of her show and other relevant video features. Next to that you can find her on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace social networking sites.
Harpo Video, another part of the Harpo emporium produces the show’s videos while Harpo Films co-produces feature films and TV movies with HBO.
Oprah’s themes are common in all of these productions, dealing with issues such as the emancipation of ethnic minorities in general, and afro-American citizens in the United States in particular. Other common themes include domestic violence, sexual emancipation and education. An example of this is the motion picture “The Color Purple” in which she starred herself as one of the main characters. The film was a great commercial success and earned several Oscar nominations.
The year 2000 saw the first issue of O, The Oprah Magazine with an average circulation of 2.7 million copies. Oprah appears exclusively on its cover making only two exceptions in the nine years of its existence – one for Michelle Obama and the other for Ellen DeGeneres. Oprah has made no secret of her support for Barack Obama during the presidential election campaign - see the ”Oprah effect”. A South African edition was started in 2002. In addition to O, The Oprah Magazine there was also an Oprah at Home magazine which was cancelled after four years of publication.
As if all of this is not enough, there is the Oprah Radio. To a large extent it follows the course of the TV show. Since 2006 Oprah has owned a radio network - Oprah & Friends (re-branded Oprah Radio in 2009) which is a talk show radio channel discussing topics such as current events, self improvement, health, nutrition, fitness and home. Friends and contributors include the same contributors to her TV show and magazines.
In January 2011, the OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) will commence offering a 24/7 TV program over cable devoted to self-discovery.
There are other venues Oprah is involved in such as Oprah’s book club which brings to the forum her monthly choice of books and Oprah’s store .
On the giving side, Oprah has created the Oprah’s Angel Network that according to the network’s mission statement “is a public charity that uses your donations to award grants to organizations around the world that are improving access to education, protecting basic rights, creating communities of support and developing the leaders of tomorrow.” Her involvement in the South African based Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy is another example of her involvement in the social and political environment.
Oprah’s collective intelligence
Given the many different ways that Oprah uses to merchandise and broadcast her message, there are now a huge amounts of people who mutually interact. First of all, there is the “Oprah Winfrey Community” on her own website. This allows subscribers to create and maintain their owns blogs and share opinions with other bloggers. Alternatively, messages can be exchanged through the various message boards and there are chat facilities for subscribers.
Occasionally, “live chat” sessions are hosted to discuss topics that are currently in the news, and there are recurrent web seminars to interactively discuss topics, such as the recent ten-week seminar on Eckhart Tolle`s A New Earth which was hosted by the author and Oprah herself and exclusively available online to Oprah Club members. This seminar and especially Oprah’s openness on her religious views drew a lot of discussion and controversy, as can be seen here.
Another example of putting collective intelligence at work through her media channels is Oprah’s contribution to a national search for child molesters. Through her shows and magazines, Oprah asked her viewers to help find criminals from her “Child Predator Watch List”. The effect was immediate. Within the first 48 hours, two of the men featured on the list were captured. Next to the ethical appeal, there was of course the 10,000 USD (contributed by Oprah) for every perpetrator captured.