Oprah Winfrey represents a billion-dollar industry unto herself, which invites the question: What exactly is her product?
The daytime titan — about to embark on a new adventure in basic cable with next month’s long-awaited launch of the Oprah Winfrey Network — has dabbled in many fields. Yet her signature power is derived from a singular source, stemming from her ability to create a lucrative commodity: experts.
Winfrey’s seal of approval has been enough to help sell all kinds of products, from books to diets to self-help programs. Yet nothing has more value — or is more emblematic of the current media age — then the host’s clout establishing authority figures, symbolizing TV’s role as an expert machine, rapidly spitting trendsetters, pundits and gurus into the cultural atmosphere.
Beyond “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” the Winfrey factory has birthed programs featuring Dr. Phil McGraw, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Rachael Ray and Nate Berkus. Whatever your needs — finance advice from Suze Orman, sex talk with Dr. Laura Berman, organizational skills courtesy of Peter Walsh — OWN promises more of the same.
More significantly, Winfrey’s imprimatur has been enough to launch personalities who have gone on not just to host programs but to peddle their own merchandise. Whatever one’s view of trickle-down economics, the Oprah river possesses no shortage of fertile tributaries.
What even Winfrey couldn’t have completely foreseen was where TV would be heading as this knack began to manifest itself. Amid a stressed economic model — when talk, being cheap, is more prized by programmers than ever — building personalities with established credibility has taken on greater importance.
Experts fill up daytime TV and cable news, where the appetite for approved pundits is virtually inexhaustible. And the lucky few who break out can go on to leverage those platforms to enhance their marketability in other realms, from books to entire lifestyles.
In this respect, Winfrey crosses over into a sphere shared with some strange and unlikely bedfellows — including Howard Stern, the acerbic radio host and self-proclaimed “King of All Media”; and political pundits such as Glenn Beck. The common thread is acolytes more accurately described as followers than fans. In a splintered marketplace, such passion is exactly what’s needed to transform loyalty into a multimedia empire.
All this has happened since Winfrey experienced what amounts to a personal epiphany, when she consciously chose to rise above the daytime muck and advance a more elevated “Live your best life” mantra.
Winfrey has been crystal clear about the messianic aspect of her collected works. As she told Barbara Walters during a recent ABC special ostensibly timed to help launch OWN, “I am seeking the fullest expression of myself as a human being on Earth.”
In doing so, Winfrey has forged a bond with her audience that goes well beyond most TV-mediated relationships. Even setbacks involving those she has endorsed — the disclosure that James Frey fabricated his memoir and allegations regarding the personal-improvement movement known as “The Secret” — have done little to diminish her influence.
Within the Oprah universe, apparently, it’s accepted wisdom that you can’t make a “best life” omelet without greasing the pan with a little snake oil.
Then again, one of Winfrey’s defense mechanisms has been to tune out criticism. In the Walters special, McGraw recalls Winfrey offering him this advice: “Don’t bend to the critics. Don’t bend to the naysayers.”
And incidentally, don’t turn off the spigot on discovering new talent cut from the same cloth as Winfrey’s existing stable of experts. Toward that end, one of the new channel’s programs, “Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star,” is essentially the “American Idol” of talking heads.
Too much can be made of branding in entertainment circles, but OWN would be the exception. The channel’s pitch is less about individual shows than the perception that they’re all part of a crazy quilt, stitched together to enhance viewers’ lives by Oprah’s loving hands. Heck, there’s even a regular place for Gayle King, whose main claim to fame (and most distinguishing talent) is simply being billed as “Oprah’s best friend.”
Don’t worry, the OWN message goes, just curl up in this blanket and you’ll be safe. We’re all experts here — and in this space, anyway, the currency says, “In Oprah we trust.”