To understand the depth, breadth, and reach of Oprah Winfrey’s power, consider an incident more telling than her recent public flogging of wayward writer James Frey, who betrayed her coveted book-club endorsement by fabricating chunks of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces.
On December 1, Oprah — who like Gandhi, Elvis, and Liberace is known simply by one name — appeared on David Letterman’s show, ending a 16-year hiatus that included her declaration that she was “completely uncomfortable” chatting with him. With Oprah deigning to end the much-hyped feud between them, Letterman — the late-night wiseass who was confident enough to seriously disrespect cable-news king Bill O’Reilly on a recent show — behaved like an awestruck schoolboy.
“It means a great deal to me, and I’m just very happy you’re here .... You have meant something to the lives of people. We’re just a TV show,” Letterman gushed before escorting Oprah to the Broadway premiere of her play, The Color Purple. Commenting on Letterman’s late-night kiss-up, Washington Post TV writer Lisa de Moraes observed that “Letterman had become that which he once mocked. An Opraholic.”
Letterman is by no means the first one to realize that the road to success — or forgiveness — entails planting a kiss somewhere on Oprah’s oft-fluctuating anatomy.
In the 2000 presidential campaign, George Bush made page one of the New York Times by going on Oprah’s show, firmly bussing her cheek and waxing confessional about his old alcohol problem. After Oprah was offended by a 2005 incident in which she arrived after closing and was denied access to the Paris Hermès store, the CEO of Hermès USA felt the need to appear on the show and make amends by trashing his own employee. On January 11, when Oprah called CNN’s Larry King to express support for Frey, King committed a major TV faux pas by letting the conversation spill over into the start of Anderson Cooper’s 10 o’clock program. When King apologized, Cooper responded with “even my mom [who happens to be Gloria Vanderbilt] ... was happy that I got cut off. Are you kidding, for Oprah?”
“Oprah, by making a single phone call, can throw the entire CNN schedule to the wind,” observes Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse’s Center for the Study of Popular Television. “That’s a powerful person.”
The 52-year-old Oprah, who Forbes estimates has a net worth of $1.4 billion, has amassed almost unfathomable power and influence through a feel-good empire of confession, redemption, and self-help magnified through the multimedia megaphone that includes everything from her talk show and magazine to her film company. By touting anything, from books to bras, she can inspire mega-mass consumption and move markets.
One of her few public doubters, author and cultural critic Chris Lehmann, recalls the 2004 show when Oprah bought 276 Pontiacs for her studio audience (without telling them that they would owe up to $7000 in taxes). “At that moment,” he says, “she could have given them an AK47 and told them to kill anyone.” He attributes her incredible success to the idea that “she’s cleared out this kind of therapist-priest space in the culture” and combined it with “a cult of personality.”
And that’s what’s ultimately so scary about Oprah. She puts the “cult” in pop culture.
The power of O
Even though much of her appeal is rooted in what’s been the highest-rated TV talk show for the past 19 years, Winfrey is more than just a television superstar. (Nielsen Media Research numbers indicate that each show averages about 9.3 million viewers, and it is currently the second-highest-rated syndicated program, behind Wheel of Fortune.)
Last year, Forbes.com listed her as number one atop its “Celebrity 100” power list, with Tiger Woods coming in second. The Internet portal About.com conducted a poll of most-admired entrepreneurs and, with more than half a million votes cast, Winfrey had swamped Bill Gates, 34 percent to 20 percent, with Donald Trump third at eight percent. There is even an organized effort under way, managed by a middle-aged Maryland public-relations consultant, to get Oprah a Nobel Peace Prize.
Yet, unlike other very powerful women (see Martha Stewart and Hillary Clinton) and unlike other media moguls with a message (see Ted Turner or Rupert Murdoch), Oprah has executed a singularly brilliant stroke: she has rendered herself largely immune to criticism or questioning — even from those made somewhat queasy by that power.
Syracuse’s Thompson acknowledges that Oprah’s “really got a grip on this culture. It is kind of frightening.” But he also thinks it’s good news that only a half century after segregation, an African-American woman could become such an important symbol.