Oprah Winfrey's brand has many years of life left in it yet
IT WAS one of the most tear-stained moments in the 24- year history of a show
that specializes in tear-stained moments. On November 20th Oprah Winfrey
announced that she will end her eponymous show in September 2011, 26
years after it first aired nationwide. She loves her show enough to know when it is time to say goodbye, she told her traumatized audience.
The sound of ululation could be heard from sea to shining sea. For once
the pundits sang the same song as "real Americans"—as one of Ms
Winfrey's recent guests, Sarah Palin, likes to call them. They talked
breathlessly about Ms Winfrey's up-from-the-bootstraps achievements—
how she came from nothing to amass a fortune of $2.3 billion and how she
has viewers in more than 100 countries—and pronounced her retirement
the end of an era. The New York Times' Gail Collins added that she
wished politicians, from the 92-year-old Robert Byrd on down, would
follow her example and quit while they are ahead.
The only problem with all this commentary is that Ms Winfrey is not quitting. She is ending her relationship with a big network, CBS, in order to
devote herself to an ambitious new venture, a cable-television channel to be called the Oprah
Winfrey Network, or OWN, which she plans to
launch in January 2011 as a joint-venture with Discovery Communications. The world is about to be blessed with moreOprah, rather than less.
This is a tricky transition that raises all sorts of questions about the power
of personal brands. Can the star's brand be separated from the show that
has nurtured it for almost a quarter of a century? And can it be used to
launch an entire network? Personal brands are easy to damage. Martha
Stewart, who was once the nearest equivalent to Ms Winfrey had started
to devalue her brand even before she got into trouble with the law,
spreading herself too thin and striking too many deals with retailers? The
celebrities who lent their name to Planet Hollywood probably no longer
relish being associated with a tacky fast-food chain that has gone bankrupt
twice. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" is not just a "delivery channel" that she
can close down at will: it has defined its creator for 24 years. By killing off
her brand-creating show and diluting her personal contribution across an
entire network, she runs the risk of enraging her fans.
But there are good commercial reasons for Ms Winfrey's decision. The
audience for network television has been declining relentlessly as viewers
have migrated to cable and the internet. The audience for "The Oprah
Winfrey Show" has shrunk from about 14m viewers in 1998 to about 7m
today, though it still remains the highest-rated talk show. Ms Winfrey is
simply following her audience into a more fragmented media world.
Besides, there is nothing to stop Ms Winfrey reviving "The Oprah Winfrey
Show", or something very like it, on her new platform.
Ms Winfrey also has lots of experience at relaunching herself. She
reinvented the daytime talk show not once but twice—first by exposing
some of her innermost secrets in public (about how she was raped at the
age of nine and experimented with drugs in her 20s, for example) and
second by taking her show up market. While Jerry Springer and his ilk
filled their studios with stump-toothed degenerates, Ms Winfrey introduced
her book club and encouraged her viewers to improve themselves.
Ms Winfrey is also an experienced brand-stretcher. She has starred in a
number of successful films, most notably "The Color Purple", for which she
was nominated for an Oscar; more importantly, she has launched a
succession of Oprah-related products such as her website, Oprah.com and
her magazine, O.
Each time she succeeded in extending her audience without alienating her
most loyal fans: a year after O's launch in 2000 half its readers were not
regular watchers of "The Oprah Winfrey Show", including many
professional women who would never dream of watching television in the
Life without Oprah
The biggest challenge with the cable channel will be to see whether Oprah's brand can survive independently from the star herself. But again she has experience here. She has produced several films that deal with the classic Oprah-themes of suffering and redemption in which she did not actually appear. But the best evidence that she can make successful programs without starring in them is her success in launching Phil McGraw. She first encountered him after she said on air that fears of mad-cow disease had put her off
hamburgers; he helped her handle a lawsuit from a group of enraged
Texas cattlemen. She invited him onto her show several times, and then
helped him get his own program. "Dr Phil" is now the second most popular
talk-show host after Ms Winfrey herself.
Ms Winfrey has always been a vigilant steward of her brand. Almost from
the first she wrested as much control as possible from the suits at CBS—
and struck famously savvy deals into the bargain. This entailed not only
creating her own company, Harpo, but also her own production studio.
She is also notorious for her overbearing perfectionism. Ms Winfrey has
steadfastly refused to take her company public, as Ms Stewart did. She
has also refused to strike deals with retailers or stick her name on
merchandise, as numerous celebrity chefs and athletes have done.
Such vigilance about her brand is hardly a guarantee of success in the
volatile and cacophonous media market. Her film version of Toni
Morrison's "Beloved" earned only $23m, less than half what it cost to
make. Her earlier tentative venture into the cable market, with Oxygen
Media, enjoyed limited success. But Ms Winfrey's handfuls of failures are
as nothing compared with her successes. Perhaps more than any of her
rivals Ms Winfrey understands that it is hard to fail in the media business if
you put your faith in people's appetite for stories of those who pick
themselves up from the floor and make something of their lives.