Sunday, May 9, 2010


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, 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.

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