Can Obama become the next Oprah?
The Obamas’ deal with Netflix could help Michelle Obama forge an even deeper connection with the American people
Oprah Winfrey was not a good journalist. As a news reporter in Baltimore, she would find herself committing the cardinal sin of emoting on air: She would laugh when someone said something amusing or absurd, and, when she was moved—which was often—the young Winfrey would cry. Bad journalism, as we see lamentably via Indian news channels, makes for compelling television, and as soon as Winfrey was moved to a breakfast show and allowed to talk, everything changed.
“It was like breathing to me,” said the most influential black woman in the world in a 2005 Guardian interview as she looked back on her start. “Like breathing. You just talk.” Oprah’s remarkable and historic ascension across the airwaves of America began with the way she would connect and relate—speaking to rather than speaking at. She became the face of empathy, and now another incredibly powerful woman with an incredible connect with her audience may well be poised to do the same.
On 21 May, Netflix announced a multi-year deal with Barack and Michelle Obama and their company Higher Ground Productions, wherein the former US president and his wife will develop and “produce a diverse mix of content, including the potential for scripted series, unscripted series, docu-series, documentaries and features”, according to a press release by the streaming giant. On an unrelated note, Netflix stocks skyrocketed a couple of days later, and its market value went up to $153 billion (around Rs10,345 crore), briefly overtaking Disney as the most valuable media company in the world.
The role of Barack Obama as a television producer could lead to many things, but he would be utterly priceless as a negotiator for Netflix, smoothening out tricky deals in foreign countries with a photo-op and a flash of that grin. At this point, it doesn’t matter what the Obamas make, but what they offer: Netflix has bought a massive amount of credibility with this alliance. According to a report in the New York Post, the deal is well over $50 million, but Netflix has already “received hundreds of résumés and story ideas after announcing the partnership”.
The jokes write themselves, naturally. America has a president who used to produce reality shows, and now we could have a former president who will be doing the same thing (the polite term used in the press release is “unscripted series”, as if Donald Trump has made the mention of “reality television” a bad thing. Yes and no. He has, but it already was).
The former first lady, on the other hand, has the kind of presence and warmth and incredible ability to connect with people that could take her very, very far on television. Miraculously coming across as both approachable and indisputably badass, Michelle Obama is widely recognized as an intelligent and elegant leader. Image is everything. Her screen presence is remarkable, and America trusts her far more than, say, Hillary Clinton. Rightly positioned, she could do something quite incredible with the power she now has. The potential is thrilling.
A lawyer from Chicago who studied at Harvard Law School and Princeton University, Michelle is an eloquent and impassioned speaker who has demonstrated the ability to captivate an audience. The subjects with which she has forged her bond with the American public are very much in the Oprah domain—avoidance of obesity, healthy eating, nutrition, equal rights education and reading—and, as shown by her sense of humour and the way she can dance, Michelle could be quite an entertainer. She might not even have to give out free cars to get the audience’s attention.
At the Golden Globe Awards in January, Oprah Winfrey had given a rousing speech that had people on their feet. She spoke of inequality, rape, and the victims of sexual abuse coming forward with the “Me Too” movement. “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up,” she said. “So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon. And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight…”
Many decided that this lady right here was the woman magnificent enough to lead them forward, and social media was abuzz with rumours of a presidential bid from Oprah. She has since shot down this speculation, but America is a country which has never had a woman in charge, and it will take an extraordinary one to be the first. Meanwhile, going from the White House to the world of television may be smoother for Michelle Obama. The most prominent hosts on American television today are either male or white—or both. They are also given to much hyperbole. There is too much shouting on television. Michelle Obama could stand apart if she—following Oprah’s cue from all those years ago—decided simply to talk, engagingly and passionately. And to listen.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.
He tweets at @rajasen