Three Things I Know for Sure About Oprah Winfrey
A lot of thought and debate went into deciding on the honorees for the 100 Most Influential Women in Advertising list that appears in this week's Advertising Age, but Oprah was a shoo-in. Because Oprah was so obviously brilliant at her main job -- being a talk-show host -- for a quarter century, it's easy to forget her effect on marketing and media culture overall. She changed the economics of syndicated TV. She transformed the tenor of daytime TV, not only with her own show, but with the other TV-show hosts she anointed (Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Nate Berkus). She changed the fortunes of those spin-off stars (all their shows are produced by Oprah's production company, Harpo) as well as hundreds of creative enterprises and companies to which she had no business connection (see Oprah's Book Club, Oprah's Favorite Things). And now, of course, she's trying to change cable TV with OWN.
To celebrate Oprah's inclusion in "100 Women," I'm doing my own riff on the "What I Know For Sure" column in her magazine. My list focuses on things I know for sure about Oprah:
With Oprah, WYSIWYG
When people find out that I once worked with Oprah Winfrey -- I served as consulting executive editor on the launch of her magazine (more on that in a bit) -- the first question they always ask is , "What's she really like?" And my answer is that she's exactly like the Oprah that we all know from TV: warm, charming, deeply charismatic without being overbearing, whip-smart without being intimidating, direct and decisive without being bossy, sensitive, patient, kind. I've dealt with various big-deal media types over the years, and there's often a disconnect between the public face of a mogul and how he or she acts behind closed doors. With Oprah, what you see is what you get.
Oprah Is a Helluva Lot of Fun
I've told this story before, and I'm sure I'll keep telling it for the rest of my life. When I went to work for Oprah's magazine -- a joint venture between her company and Hearst -- I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement. But it was widely reported at the time that the magazine's launch was somewhat rocky -- Oprah and Hearst had different ideas about the magazine they wanted to produce -- so I'm not exactly telling tales out of school by acknowledging that reality here.
However, because of my NDA, I will neither confirm nor deny that after we closed the first issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, Oprah flew the entire staff (even our editorial intern) down to Miami on a private jet for a little retreat to help diffuse the stress and to talk about how to move forward. I will neither confirm nor deny that she put everybody up at a nice hotel and threw a dinner party for us at her home (a Fisher Island condo she owned at the time). I will neither confirm nor deny that after dinner an impromptu dance party broke out thanks to Oprah having cranked up Paul Simon's classic "Graceland" album. I will neither confirm nor deny that at one point I found myself in a tipsy conga line that weaved out of Oprah's living room, out onto her balcony, back into her condo through the patio doors of her bedroom, and then back into her living room. And I will neither confirm nor deny that I found myself thinking, Oh my God, I'm kind of drunk right now -- is this actually happening? Yeah, it's actually happening.
All that said, I will confirm, generally speaking, that Oprah is a helluva lot of fun. Fun to talk to, fun to listen to, fun to watch, fun to be around. Which brings me to ...
Oprah's Status as a Sort of Global Stateswoman Can Be a Bit Suffocating
Sometimes I think that Oprah's relentless focus on a message of self-empowerment for women can get in the way of remembering one of the other big reasons people love Oprah. We love Oprah because she's a brilliant entertainer. She gave us good TV.
Oprah has struggled with OWN in part because her network has obviously been stocked with shows that just weren't good-enough TV. But I suspect some viewers have also generally stayed away from OWN precisely because of how she's tended to speak about the "mission" of her network. As if it's solely some sort of all-broccoli, good-for-you, fix-your-life channel.
I have a media-world friend who doesn't buy into "Oprah's self-help crap," as she puts it, but says she will totally watch "Life With La Toya," an OWN reality show that will follow Michael Jackson's sibling. "That's more like it," my friend says. "I'm going to watch the hell out of that train wreck."
By doing a show like "Life With La Toya," is Oprah straying from her roots? Of course not! Remember Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah's couch? Oprah dragging a little red wagon full of fat onstage to visually quantify her weight loss? "You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!"?
Last year Oprah published a best-of column titled "The Top 20 Things Oprah Knows for Sure" that included this entry: "When you don't know what to do, get still. The answer will come."
Far be it from me to give Oprah Winfrey advice, but when it comes to her current "journey" with OWN, I vote for less stillness and more, well, crazy -- more catharsis. Because the TV Oprah has given us over the years has always been most compelling, most memorable, when she and her guests and her audience all come a little undone.
>Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.