When you look at Oprah Winfrey’s multi-decade run through daytime talk it’s easy to be impressed by what she did to make it happen. But her longevity and success probably has more to do with what she did not do.
She never took her company public, which meant that she remained in control of both her operation and her destiny (see Martha Stewart).
She never christened her own book imprint even though she created best-sellers with the flick of the wrist (see Miramax/Talk).
She never stuck her name, a very powerful brand, on any merchandise (see Martha again, along with a host of chefs and athletes).
She did not licence her name to a magazine, she built one in her own image and tweaked it until it became a big publishing success (see Donald Trump, et al).
She never engaged in behaviour that tarnished the lustre of her name. (Martha again, plus David Letterman).
Trend-setter: Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey. Harpo Productions
She also never made big deals just for the sake of synergy (AOL-Time Warner), never got addicted to doing deals (see Barry Diller), never made dubious investments that put a strain on her core business (Sumner Redstone and Midway), never let in-house corporate politics boil into public view (Michael Eisner). And, while building a murderer’s row of daytime programming, she never got involved in businesses she didn't understand (Edgar Bronfman, Jean-Marie Messier and, well, just about everybody else in the media world).
And now we can add that she never hung on past her prime, choosing to go out as a talk show host while her programme was still on top.
“I don’t think of myself as a businesswoman,” she told Fortune magazine in 2002. And that’s sort of the point. A business type would have said that to sell books through her book club’s endorsement without dipping your beak in was silly.
And let’s not forget that just when tabloid television was beginning to crest and threatened to tip over into a sea of cross-dressing Nazis, she pulled back, saying that she could build a bigger audience on uplift than on baser instincts.
“She was transparent and authentic before those things were cool,” said Arianna Huffington. “When she went through her battles with weight, with her battles to come to grips with her past, we went through those things with her. Now with social media and the Internet, those things are the coin of the realm, but she got there before the rest of us did.”
“If you are out to build a brand, you have to know what is real and right for you,” said Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue. “The choices that she has made stand the test of time because they are very personal choices. If you look at her support for the movie Precious, that is not a business decision, it is very personal.”
She most recently confounded naysayers by stepping out of her pew to endorse Barack Obama, a first for her. The message boards on her website lit up in protest and certain observers—I can think of one hack media columnist in particular—suggested that she was risking the nonpartisan sanctity of her brand. Given that she just piled up huge ratings with a Sarah Palin interview last week, it didn’t turn out that way.
It could be argued—well, I'll just say it—without Oprah Winfrey, there would be no Barack Obama. Not because she endorsed him, but with her message of bootstrap accountability, she not only empowered black people, she empowered white people.
“Oprah, for African-Americans, became the person who made America comfortable with a black presence in their living rooms on a daily basis,” said Al Sharpton. “And she was able to do it in a way that brought us dignity. She didn't do it as sex object, she didn't do it as a comedian. She was thoughtful and professional.”
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Felicia R. Lee contributed to this story.