Eleanor Townsley Opens Up on Oprah

Thursday, March 3, 2011 - 15:15

 

Professor of sociology and gender studies Eleanor Townsley specializes in cultural sociology. She is currently writing a book with Ron Jacobs titled The Space of Opinion: Media, Intellectuals and the Public Sphere (Oxford, September 2011). Given that few people in American culture today are as well-known as Oprah Winfrey, Questioning Authority asked Townsley about what Oprah’s imminent departure from her longtime talk show will mean to the Oprah brand and the larger media landscape.

QA: This is the last season of Oprah Winfrey's famed daytime talk show. What's your assessment of Oprah's move to OWN, which is an entire network based on her brand?

ET: The end of Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show is the end of an era. But I don’t think it’s the end of Oprah. She is a planet-wide celebrity--a household name all over the world. I doubt she will disappear completely. Indeed, of the many possible contenders who might base a cable network on their own celebrity, Oprah seems the most likely to succeed.

I see OWN as a smart move for two reasons. First, Oprah is only one person. She has been working nonstop in front of the camera for nearly 30 years. It may be time to think about how to develop her brand in a way that is not completely dependent on her as a frontwoman. Second, the move to cable may be a good choice in a media context where the center of gravity is shifting away from network television premised on the existence of large mass audiences. In recent decades we have seen the proliferation of many specialized media formats on multiple platforms which cater to increasingly specific audiences. Oprah’s entire career has been based on perceiving big changes in the media environment and taking advantage of them. I wouldn’t bet against her in this venture.

QA: What made Oprah so successful?

ET: Oprah is an icon for many reasons, but surely one is that her career trajectory has closely mapped changes in the larger media landscape. Beginning in the daytime television talk show format, pioneered by Phil Donahue, Oprah fully realized the potential of the genre as she leveraged her fame on multiple media platforms including, radio, television, film, Broadway, books, magazines, and the Internet. In addition to her work in daytime talk, some of her most recognizable products are her highly successful lifestyle magazine O, her roles in high-end dramatic works for film and stage, like The Color Purple and Beloved, and her ill-conceived philanthropic project for girls in South Africa (also a documentary). Although these projects did not all succeed equally well, they have cemented Oprah’s cultural prominence and sheer ubiquity. They also demonstrate Oprah’s ability to take risks.  

I would also note that Oprah is a global media phenomenon. Unlike other big celebrities in the United States, Oprah has taken advantage of the increasingly expansive syndication of the digital era to build a mass international audience. My mother in Australia cites Oprah! There is really no one who can compare with Oprah’s celebrity over such a long period of time, on so many platforms, and in so many countries.

QA: Can that same formula translate across an entire channel of programs, or is she stretching herself, and her concept, too thin?

ET: We’ll see. People have bet against Oprah before and lost. That said, I would emphasize that Oprah is not just a person. “Oprah” is also her huge corporate business holdings. There are a lot of resources there. Oprah’s is one of the few companies that could probably afford to take the risk and lose the money if the cable network fails. She also has the capital to retool and reimagine the project as the experiment unfolds. So, it will be interesting to see what happens with the network. Overall, I think it’s a risky but very smart move.

QA: Oprah is one of the world's most well-known media figures; therefore, will her business strategy lead to similar changes in the overall media landscape?

ET: That’s not clear. Certainly there have been several cable projects for major celebrities, including Sarah Palin’s Alaska, Al Gore’s support of Current TV, Tom Brokaw’s project on The Greatest Generation at the History Channel, etc. Indeed, to be a major media celebrity these days is defined by mastery of cross-platform publicity; that is, success in many formats on multiple platforms. A new television celebrity, for example, will also record songs, appear in movies, write books, and design a fashion line. Oprah is a past master at this kind of promotion. What she adds is a seemingly prescient analysis of where major trends are in culture and media, and she personally risks her economic and symbolic capital to explore new ideas like this cable network. In this she is an agenda-setter, and where she jumps, others may follow. If OWN is successful, others might try similar things. I would emphasize, however, that very few have Oprah’s unusual combination of brand recognition or vast resources.

QA: The early reviews of OWN have not been very positive--take, for example, the New Yorker’s assessment. If the new network doesn't live up to Oprah's earlier media success, is it fair for us to consider the channel a failure? And if so, what does this do to Oprah's standing in the public eye?

ET: Oprah’s celebrity is so big that I cannot believe her standing will be diminished if OWN fails. Oprah’s public persona is so strongly linked with her personal life--or at least the story of her personal life--that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between Oprah the brand and Oprah the person. They are connected, of course. But analyzing Oprah as a brand, I think the challenge is to diffuse her appeal as she moves out of the limelight and out of the public eye. It is inevitable that she will. If this cable network doesn’t fly as far and as fast as she plans, then I expect we will see more of Oprah reasserting her public presence in a host of other formats.