In this video montage, Oprah Winfrey’s announcement that she will end her talk show in September 2011 and launch her new network in January that same year reverberates across the media landscape. Beneath the hyperbole—Winfrey’s departure from daytime will create a “huge void,” her decision marks a “historic moment,” her announcement is “bombshell news”—lie more mundane, but critical details.
Winfrey’s partnership with Discovery Communications to create the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN)—first announced in January 2008 with the promise of a 2009 launch and postponed twice since then—was about to be taken off the table if she kept dragging her feet. She was also heading toward tough negotiations next year, when contracts with her show’s distributor, CBS, and with TV stations across the country, were set to expire. With a recession-driven plunge in advertising revenue and her own ratings in decline, Winfrey faced the likelihood of doing her show for a lot less money—an embarrassing prospect for “the queen of all media.”
In 2005, Brand Oprah appeared invincible, but Winfrey’s largely female audience has contracted over the past five years and, like her, grown older. Ratings for The Oprah Winfrey Show are down 45 percent among women 25-45 and half its viewers are 50 and older—statistics guaranteed to strike fear in advertisers and media executives. Besides losing her grip on the coveted younger ranges of the demographic, Winfrey has also alienated some formerly loyal followers—as well as TV station managers loath to antagonize large swaths of viewers—by endorsing Barack Obama and promoting New Age gurus and beliefs.
Despite Tina Brown's assertion here that Winfrey is "too big to fail," whether she can replicate her success on cable at this stage in her life is an open question. Leaving broadcast television’s access to 115 million households for a “nosebleed” cable channel and an audience of 70 million homes is a gamble. And feeding a 24/7 cable schedule is exponentially more challenging than producing five hours of talk programming per week. Behind the scenes, OWN is reportedly plagued by internal disorganization, confused vision, and high turnover—one industry insider has called it "sort of a wreck."
I have argued in The Age of Oprah (2008) that Winfrey’s ascent to cultural icon of mainstream America paralleled the rise of the neoliberal political-economic project—itself sustained by consecutive stock market and housing bubbles. In an era when people’s real power over their lives has declined while the power of capital has expanded, Winfrey achieved fame and fortune by promising we could do anything we put our minds to. Now that the bubbles have burst and double-digit unemployment looms indefinitely on the horizon, perhaps that promise has finally lost its luster.