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Oprah Winfrey—Life as a Story

Amid the plethora of afternoon programs ranging from steamy soaps to shock-talk TV, there is a voice apart. It is one of clarity born of focus, conviction steeled by hard times, heart born of compassion, and natural ebullience that bubbles up frequently. It is Oprah. With Oprah, what you see is what you get. The woman is as genuine as the Mississippi hardscrabble from which she comes. She is inordinately rich and very powerful. And the key to her success and influence is simple—her ability to communicate and connect with people in a way that makes her seem accessible as well as intuitive. When Oprah speaks, people listen. Better yet from a business perspective, they buy. She is a communicator par excellence.

Business Scope

Oprah is more than a television personality; she is the doyenne of a self-created media empire. However, she says, "I don't think of myself as a businesswoman,"[10] and she has turned down invitations to serve on corporate boards such as those of AT&T, Ralph Lauren, and Intel. She has even kept a personal cache of $50 million in cash, not for a sense of wealth, but from a sense of fear—a personal "bag-lady fund."[11] It is a sentiment that many who were born to poverty feel even when they accumulate a great deal of wealth.

But Oprah isn't just about wealth for herself. She sits at the helm of a billion-dollar enterprise, Harpo, Inc. (Oprah spelled backwards). The anchor is The Oprah Winfrey Show, with a daily viewership of 22 million in the United States alone, not to mention the other 106 countries in which it airs. It has been the number one daytime show for 16 consecutive years. O, The Oprah Magazine, which Oprah describes as a "personal growth manual," is considered the "most successful startup ever" in magazine publishing, with revenues topping $140 million in 2001 and a paid subscriber base of 2.5 million. Her company also produces hit TV movies such as Tuesdays with Morrie and has a stake in Oxygen Media, described as "a cable TV company for women." She also ventures on the self-help circuit, speaking to audiences live.[12] Oprah is also an accomplished actress. She received an Oscar nomination for her role in Steven Spielberg's adaptation of The Color Purple. Another film, Beloved, was a critical hit, but was unsuccessful at the box office.

She has resisted taking her company public. "If I lost control of the business, I'd lose myself—or at least the ability to be myself. Owning myself is a way to be myself."[13] That's not a bad assessment of someone who has made a business of self-disclosure, both her own and that of her guests. She does, however, know how to make strategic alliances—with King World for distribution of her show and with Hearst Publications for her magazine. Oprah has also delegated the business operations to the president of Harpo, Jeff Jacobs, who has a 10 percent stake in the business. "He's a piranha—and that's a good thing for me to have," she says, in deference to the cutthroat world of multimedia entertainment.[14]

Self-revelation as a Means of Connection

Oprah has also collaborated with fitness guru Bob Greene to write a couple of books on fitness. Frequently the subject of barbs from comedians as well as commentators, Oprah has battled her weight all of her life. Her up-and-down struggle has been chronicled as much by her as by others, and her willingness to share her weaknesses (along with her triumphs) rings with authenticity.

Oprah has the capacity to crusade for issues in which she believes strongly. In 1992 she produced a documentary on abuse within families that was broadcast simultaneously on CBS, NBC, and PBS. She followed this broadcast by covering the topic on her own show, including a segment in which a young woman confronted her abusive stepfather during the program's taping. She continued speaking out on the topic, including traveling to Capitol Hill to testify. Only later did she come to the realization that she was not the one to blame for being abused as a child. The sharing of this intensely private revelation is an example of how she injects herself into her communications as a means of helping others come to grips with their own personal demons.[15] A year later, the National Child Protection Act was enacted. She was present when President Bill Clinton signed the bill, which was also known as "Oprah's Law."[16]

Oprah is naturally empathetic and uses her own experiences to draw others out. While other hosts use topics like this to shock, Oprah uses them to raise awareness and perhaps begin a healing process—not only for her guests, but for her viewers. She does, however, admit to mistakes, recalling from the past a live show on adultery that resulted in the transgressing husband's confessing to his wife that his girlfriend was pregnant. Seeing the shock on the wife's face moved Oprah to tears herself. Still, the show crossed the line, and she did not wish to repeat the experience: "You should not have to come on television and be publicly shamed and humiliated."[17]

Oprah is more philosophical about her role. "I'm a black woman—I own the show, I own the studio . . . [and this] speaks volumes about the possibility of what a black person can do, a black female can do."[18] Oprah features successful men and woman of color where appropriate as a matter of inclusiveness. "[T]he point about breaking down racial barriers is to show that we're more alike than we're different, that all feelings, all pain, all joys, all sorrows, bear no color. The reason I've been successful is because I focus on the commonality."[19]

Words of Wisdom

For Oprah, giving advice is second nature. In a way, her life is her message. Her achievements, tempered by her infectious sense of humor, give her stature; people want to listen to what she has to say. Here is a sampling from Oprah Winfrey Speaks: [20]

On Herself

More than anything else, I would call myself a truth seeker. I'm always looking for truth and its value in my life. (p. 130)

Power is strength over time. (p. 105)

Gut is what got me to where I am today. (p. 113)

I'm a person who lives my life with great passion, and I think that comes across on camera. (p. 37)

On the Future

When I look at the future it's so bright I burn my eyes. (p. 173)

I believe that you tend to create your own blessings. You have to prepare yourself so that when opportunity comes, you're ready for it. (p. 167)

On Her Fame

I've developed a great respect for fish. I'll tell ya, because I've lived my life in a fishbowl. (p. 73)

On Her Impact

I feel that my show is a ministry; we just don't take up a collection. And I feel that it is a teaching tool, without preaching to people about it.(p. 126)

People have told me their lives have changed because of me. I take away from this the sense that I'm on the right track. (p. 170)

The Power of Her Influence

An indication of Oprah's influence was evident in her decision to cease doing her monthly "Oprah's Book Club" in the spring of 2002. When she started the club in 1996, publishers claimed that her endorsement could boost sales by as much as one million copies. Over the years, that figure fell to 600,000—still a considerable amount by any measure. This kind of influence is indicative of the way Oprah connects; her audiences trust her instincts because they find echoes of those instincts in themselves. (In early 2003, Oprah announced that she would bring back the book club.)

Oprah has announced that she will cease production of her show at the completion of the 2005-2006 season, after 20 years of doing the show. While she may be leaving one stage, it is unlikely that she will be leaving the arena completely. As one with the ability to connect so intimately with so many people, she is likely to continue using her communication gifts to extend her reach as she seeks to educate, entertain, and enrich those who hear her message.

[10]Ibid.

[11]Ibid.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid.

[14]Ginny Holbert, "Oprah Winfrey Breaks Silence on Child Abuse," Chicago Sun-Times, Aug. 30, 1992.

[15]Maya Jaggi, "The Power of Talk Shows Has Made Oprah Rich and Famous . . .," Manchester Guardian, Feb. 13, 1999.

[16]Ibid.

[17]Ibid.

[18]Ibid.

[19]Lowe, Oprah Winfrey Speaks.

[20]David D. Kirkpatrick, "Oprah Will Curtail ‘Book Club' Picks, and Authors Weep," New York Times, Apr. 6, 2002, p. 1.


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