Too Big to Fail?

Curator's Note

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.





A fascinating post -- and I especially like the parallels you've drawn to the "too big to fail" theme and the broader neoliberal political-economic project.  I knew Winfrey's ratings were suffering, but I wasn't fully clear on the extent/implications of the downturn.  I thank you for the insight.

I wonder, though, if the decline of brand Oprah is perhaps a bit over-wrought here.  After all, The Oprah Winfrey Show is, though the centerpiece of Winfrey's media kingdom, nonetheless just a single facet within it.  She/Harpo produce Rachel Ray, for example, which I imagine recaptures the lucrative younger demographic that Winfrey seems to have shedded from her own show.

Could it be, then, that Winfrey's not failing as much as she's moving her chips around to other media productions -- covering her bets, as it were?  Maybe Winfrey herself is not as popular as she once as, but to me brand Oprah still appears to be going strong.

I, too, appreciated the drawing out of different aspects of the brand's decline and the "too big to fail" narrative, which has many interesting readings. I wonder, though, how we might fit Oprah's seeming industriousness, work ethic, and extensions on our working lives into the neoliberal analysis you raise in your book, Janice? Financially, Winfrey could probably retire five times over, but even she might have to downsize the lifestyle we see in her 20th anniversary DVD (plush office, Santa Barbara home). I'm thinking of your post along with Vanessa's forthcoming piece (stay tuned!) and the advertisements on television that try to appeal to our fiscal sensibilities about work and reducing our spending. Assuming, perhaps erroneously, that Oprah could never fail, what might a yet-to-be-seen reduced presence mean and look like?


You raise a good question about whether Winfrey's decision to end her show might be better viewed as a diversification of the brand through new productions (e.g., Rachael Ray, Dr. Oz, Nate Berkus), than a troubling contraction of the brand. These programs certainly have the potential to attract different, and younger, viewers, and thus continue to generate money for the Harpo empire. But I'm not sure The Oprah Winfrey Show can be understood as "just a single facet" within the Harpo universe. I would argue that it's the foundation and raison d'etre of Winfrey's enterprise--what even she referred to as the "mother lode"--that drives the rest of the platforms. The website, magazine, book club, radio programs, personal growth summits, philanthropic activities are so many extensions and replications of the talk show. Former Harpo president Jeff Jacobs once described the company's business model as "multi-purposing" of the "core content." And that core content is Winfrey herself, grounded in her daily contact with fans through the talk show. My question is whether the Oprah brand can survive the demise of the "mother lode." More importantly, has that "core content" itself (i.e., Winfrey) reached the historical limits of its appeal?


It's hard for me to imagine Winfrey being satisfied with a "reduced presence"--and I suspect it's even harder for her to imagine such a possibility. In examining the extensive coverage leading up to and following her announcement to end the talk show in 2011, I ran into speculation that it's a big mistake to leave what has been her most powerful platform on broadcast television for the uncertainty, and potential obscurity of cable. Lloyd Grove and Jacob Bernstein, in a piece on The Daily Beast called the move a "colossal risk" and compared it to departures or venue changes by Tom Brokaw, Jerry Seinfeld and Howard Stern. They quote a talent representative who observed: "The way you maintain the attention of the public is for the public to constantly see you. Oprah loves being Oprah and when she's off the air and running her empire and not in the public eye every minute, it's going to be an adjustment." Winfrey has demonstrated powerful survival instincts; it will be interesting to see if she has one more "makeover" in her arsenal.

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