She is the Queen of All Media, a woman so successful she has her own TV show, her own magazine, $2.7 billion in the bank, a book club that can make any author a best seller and now her own TV network. And, conveniently, she also has a “secret” she had to share with 6.7 billion close friends – just in time to promote her fledgling cable channel. Oprah’s secret was the sudden revealing of a long-lost half sister – truly a touching moment in anyone’s life. But, in this case, it was a moment more touched by ratings than reality.
Oprah billed the event as a “miracle.” “I was given some news that literally shook me to my core. This time, I'm the one being reunited,” reported the Associated Press. “I was keeping a family secret for months, and on Monday you're going to hear it straight from me.” That might lack the sexiness of Geraldo’s “Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults,” but it’s not exactly subtle either.
Clearly, Oprah had plenty of time to envision how she wanted to handle the family news and she just as clearly used it to promote the family business. According to a Reuters story, Oprah had been searching for lost family for years, but knew about the lost half-sister since October. The half-sister reportedly knew of the relationship for three years. Hardly breaking news. “Imagine my shock just a few months ago, at the end of October, when I found out I have another sister living just 90 minutes away,” Winfrey said. Ironically, Reuters claimed “Oprah ‘speechless’ on discovering she has half-sister.” Oprah speechless? Never.
Opportunistic? Always. One can almost rationalize it. These days, even the lowest F+ celebrity (ahem) is taught about branding. In media, there is no bigger brand than the Mighty O. Now in the 25th year of her incredibly successful TV show, Oprah is moving her star power to the Oprah Winfrey Network or OWN. (Not to be confused with the future all-geek network PWN.) OWN owned cable at the outset, with 1 million viewers for its grand opening. That’s not too shabby for a network only available in two thirds of cable homes. And especially impressive since OWN is not even on basic cable – a point much criticized by her legion of fans. Oprah has grandiose aims for OWN, including using it to stay in the spotlight. The biggest name in media doesn’t want to disappear from headlines like Howard Stern did when he went to satellite radio exile. It’s a heady time for the woman who wants to OWN cable just like she owns broadcast. Oprah is launching new shows on her network and, reportedly, is going to push documentaries as part of those offerings. That brought her attention at Robert Redford’s famed Sundance Film Festival “It is my intention to do for documentaries what we have been able to do for books.” But media long ago moved into the Land of What Have You Done for Me Lately. Soon after the launch, the numbers began to drop faster than “Skins” advertisers. “[S]ince the initial hype, the numbers have taken a dive,” wrote Neal Justin of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “Three days later, the prime-time audience was only about 315,000, roughly a quarter of the number watching Lifetime Network on an average night – and only a bit better than SoapNet, which is soon going away.” So Oprah was on a promotional blitz, including a spot on CNN’s new “Piers Morgan Tonight,” where he asked her about broken hearts and even the child she lost when she was but a child herself. Every personal nugget was designed to bring her closer to her fans, but each anecdote also built the brand. When telling of her new-found half-sister, Oprah proudly explained that “she never once thought to sell the story.” Good thing, because Oprah is doing just that. Sure, she’s not getting a direct check from The National Enquirer. She’s just getting attention, and ratings. And both of those are big business. Already one executive is predicting the new network will make a profit on its OWN this year “because of ad acceptance and good performance.” Building a brand is obviously a successful strategy and one only criticized by media types when deployed by a Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck. When it’s Oprah, whose politics spin farther left than her audience, no one in the media utters a discouraging word. I have always been a fan of Lady O. I am one of those fortunate few who remember her before she was a national celebrity and merely appearing on the Baltimore TV show “People Are Talking.” She’s a brilliant, driven, successful businesswoman. But she’s not always right. Even in this day and age, sometimes a family triumph is just that – not another way to boost brand loyalty. Dan Gainor is The Boone Pickens Fellow and the Media Research Center’s Vice President for Business and Culture. His column appears each week on The Fox Forum. He can also be contacted on FaceBook and Twitter as dangainor.