And few have been shrewder at this than Winfrey.
In the past several years, the former talk-show impresario has signed an overarching content deal with Apple. It was a grand announcement, made grander by her standing at a Cupertino, Calif., event declaring, “They’re in a billion pockets, y’all.” So far, the deal has netted such programs as a limited-series coronavirus special and regular Book Club segments.
But it’s far from the only significant media partnership she has made. Winfrey is producing a musical adaptation of “The Color Purple” for Warner Media’s Warner Bros. Her production company Harpo is behind a number of popular syndicated shows such as “Rachael Ray,” aired by a host of station groups. And she sold the Harry and Meghan interview to CBS’s entertainment division, the crown jewel of ViacomCBS, for a reported $7 million. (Harry and Meghan were not paid.)
Winfrey has a past relationship with that company, too, via the news division and “60 Minutes,” for which she was once a correspondent.
Experts who have followed Winfrey say this has been emblematic of a career in which she knows how to gravitate to the right platform for a given piece of content.
“Oprah could have gone to another network with this interview,” said Nancy Koehn, a historian at the Harvard Business School who has done several case studies on Winfrey. “She could have gone exclusively to a streaming service [like Apple]. But she understood that CBS on Sunday nights, with a broad audience but also a certain amount of seriousness, was going to get a lot of people watching on television with also a lot of online engagement.”
While her syndicated talk show is long behind her, this was a talent forged in those days, Koehn said.
“She’s always understood the technological power of different media but more than that she understands market demand — what people in the Midwest want, what dads want.”
“Oprah with Meghan and Harry: A CBS Primetime Special,” which featured eye-opening revelations about the monarchy’s attitude toward race and other subjects, drew 17.1 million viewers on CBS. That’s a number in the range of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament final, also a big draw for the network.
The special also garnered what the TV business terms a 2.6 rating among adults ages 18 to 49, a strong number suggesting that young people who normally don’t watch broadcast television tuned in to see a pair of the world’s most well-known millennials.
This, experts say, is further proof of Winfrey understanding corporate partners as well as her audience. And it suggests she can create live-event television, a once-popular skill that is fading in the age of thousands of archived programs on endlessly available digital platforms.
Winfrey, incidentally, is not the only one in this story to pursue a kind of media omnivorousness: As they were helping ViacomCBS generate advertising revenue, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, herself a former actress with a sharp understanding of the media world, also continue to boast of roles producing a variety of programming via Netflix and Spotify deals.
Of course, if you’d like the freedom to pivot, it helps to be in demand. But such fluidity also requires a level of skill — and industriousness. “The Oprah Winfrey Show” went off the air a decade ago this spring. At the time, some speculated it might lead to a slowdown in Winfrey’s business efforts as she focused on her philanthropic work and, possibly, even a career in politics. But the years since have seen her become a mogul.
Such ambidextrousness can cause problems for the companies involved. The Oprah special cannot be watched on-demand on CBS’s Paramount Plus service, which launched just last week. The firm was not able to obtain separate streaming rights given the parties’ other deals. (It is available on the CBS app with the network’s other programming.)
The absence prompted an outcry on social media. As Vulture writer Kathryn VanArendonk tweeted: “The entire world: we want to watch the oprah interview. Paramount plus: the top trending show on this platform is spongebob squarepants.”
Ironically, one of the few ventures Winfrey is not closely tied to is the one that bears her name: OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, is as of December 95 percent-owned by Discovery. Winfrey, as she has been doing at regular intervals, sold a percentage of her shares to her former partner, about 22 percent this time. (She still has a long-running contract with the network.)
But in true Winfrey-ian fashion, she parlayed even this exit into a new association: She traded the stake for more than 1 million shares of Discovery stock.
At the time of the sale, the shares were worth $36 million. Discovery’s share price has more than doubled since that time, and as of Monday’s close they were worth $90 million.