A Movie to Bring Out the Beast in You. The Five-Year-Old, Oprah and Obama. Familiar Yet Astonishingly Original
Oh God, I thought to myself, here we go again. I was being dragged to a movie that I knew I’d hate.
It had several things going against it.
First, it had won a major award at the Cannes Film Festival. In my experience, more often than not, those were movies I usually found “arty” in the worst possible way: pretentious AND boring.
Then I had heard it was shot in 16mm with a handheld camera. Oh no. Shades of the countless hours we had to sit through my parents' home movies taken throughout my young childhood. Cute and OK the first time around, then increasingly squirm inducing. Commercial movies shot in 16mm with a handheld camera signal not only pretentious and boring, but are nausea-inducing as well. This was just getting better and better.
Next, I was told that the star was a kid, about 5-6 years old. Boy, this movie is just screaming danger city. I’m sorry. Call me Mr. Mean, but after about five minutes I was done with the “cuteness” of Macaulay Culkin in those “Home Alone” movies. I was the guy rooting for the burglars.
As it turned out, the movie I was being dragged to actually was overwhelming -- but in a good way. It was both awesome and awe-inspiring. It’s called “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and the manner of this beast is a raw, emotional brute that shows off human foibles and follies in the most noble of ways.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a gift to us created by Benh Zeitlin and his colleagues. He’s 29 years old, and he’s the movie’s director and co-scenarist. It’s also his first full-length, nationally distributed movie.
Now, imagine this: The president of the United States sees “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and mentions how much he likes it to the most influential person on TV in the last quarter-century, Oprah Winfrey. Oprah then calls you, the film’s director, and says she wants to interview you and your colleagues who made the movie, on TV.
Well, that really happened, And as exciting as this must have been for Zeitlin and his colleagues, the real beneficiaries of this series of events are us, the audience, as we can see them interviewed by the master, Oprah.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is about is a little girl and her dad. It takes place near New Orleans, in a place called the Bathtub, and it’s about how this little girl and her dad live and survive.
Knowing that, I’ve really told you nothing about the movie. It’s like knowing that “Citizen Kane” is about a newspaper tycoon.
I really don’t want to tell you much more about the movie. I want you to run out and see it this weekend, which may be difficult if you don’t live in or near a major city, because the movie is only playing in about 230 theaters across the country. Since its released on June 29, during its peak week the movie was only in 318 theaters.
The movie cost about $1.8 million to make, I’ve read -- which is peanuts for a movie. It was bought by Fox’s art house Fox Searchlight distribution brand for about $2 million. And thus far it’s taken in about $8 million at the box office, which is about what a summer blockbuster like “The Amazing Spider-Man” made in what, its first 10 minutes?
But you’ll be vastly more rewarded by seeing the amazing “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” A few more things about it: The heart of the movie is the character Hushpuppy, played by a little girl, Quvenzhané Wallis, who was five when she first auditioned for the movie and was mostly six years old during its filming. She wasn’t an actor before making this movie. Quvenzhané is pronounced Qua Van Jah Nay, and her nickname is Nazie. On Oprah’s website I learned that her name “comes from the Swahili word for ‘fairy' or 'nymph.' ” I truly believe the performance by this 6-year-old is the one to beat for the Oscar this year.
Her performance is matched by the astonishing movie craft exhibited by another non-actor in the cast, Dwight Henry, who plays Hushpuppy’s dad, Wink. Before being talked into playing the role Henry was a baker, whom the filmmakers met when they’d hang around and eat snacks at his bakery.
The cinematography in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is astounding. Here’s how it’s described at PostLab.com: “The textures, compositions and overall cinema verite style successfully fuse a painterly, expressive visual palette with a documentary sensibility.” Or, as The New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott put it, there’s “rugged, ragged beauty in nearly every shot.”
The reason I want you to rush out to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild” either today, Friday, Aug. 24, or tomorrow, Saturday, Aug. 25, is because Oprah is devoting her entire “Super Soul Sunday” show this Sunday morning , Aug. 26 (11 a.m, ET/PT), to the movie. Oprah says it’s her new favorite movie, and I can’t wait to see her show about it. At the end of this column there’s a preview clip Oprah has made for the show. [Update 8-26-2012 at 4:44 p.m. PT. The "Super Soul Sunday" about "Beasts of the Southern Wild" will be repeated on OWN on Sunday morning, Sept. 2, 2012 at 10 a.m. ET/PT]
I want to conclude with a few more remarks A.O. Scott has written about “Beasts of the Southern Wild":
“[I]ts impact, its glory, is sensory rather than cerebral. Let me try out an analogy. Discovering this movie is like stumbling into a bar and encountering a band you’ve never heard of playing a kind of music that you can’t quite identify. Nor can you figure out how the musicians learned to play the way they do, with such fire and mastery. Did they pick it up from their grandparents, study at a conservatory, watch instructional videos on the Internet or just somehow make it all up? Are you witnessing the blossoming of authenticity or the triumph of artifice?
“Those are interesting questions. They are also irrelevant, because right now you are transported by an irresistible rhythm and moved by a melody that is profoundly, almost primally, familiar, even though you are sure you have never heard anything like it before.”
Please, do yourself a favor: Go see this movie!
One of the oddest items I’ve read lately about NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics was this sentence from SportsGrid.com: “The numbers [meaning ratings] are working in [NBC’s] favor, even if public opinion is not.”
It’s nonsensical. The loudest shouting of public opinion, with regards to TV, is measured by a program’s ratings.
And by that measure, NBC’s coverage of the Games in London was an overwhelming success. Just looking at prime time, the London Olympics averaged 31.1 million viewers, according to TVByTheNumbers, making it the most-watched non-U.S. Summer Games in 36 years. That figure topped the Beijing Games four year ago by 12% and the Athens Olympics, in 2004, by 26%.
Those ratings represent a huge win for NBC and its entire Olympics team. Kudos especially to NBC’s Olympics guru Dick Ebersol, who’s been the architect of NBC’s Olympics coverage for years -- and whose assistance in London was his swan song from the network -- and to Ebersol’s successor as NBC Sports chairman, Mark Lazarus.
A lot of the criticism of NBC’s Olympics coverage came from Twitter and #nbcfail. According to a Storify.com examination of #nbcfail, here are the top 8 ways NBC blew its coverage (starting with the 8th reason and leading up to the No. 1 reason):
Top Eight Ways NBC Blew Its Coverage of the Olympics, According to #nbcfail
8. Requesting Twitter "discipline" a vocal critic
7. Condescending to critics
6. Cutting an Opening Ceremony tribute to terrorism victims for ... Ryan Seacrest
5. Requiring a cable subscription to view online
4. Stupid commentary
3. Failing at geography ... and social studies ... and ...
2. Cutting content for commercials
1. Tape-delaying what the rest of the world watched live
Most of these are rather minor infractions. Regarding NBC’s attempt to “discipline” a vocal critic, NBC is guilty as charged. Stupid to try to do this, but media companies are surprisingly thin-skinned.
NBC is condescending to critics. Critics can also be surprisingly thin-skinned.
Cutting part of the Opening Ceremony to go to Ryan Seacrest was an editorial decision that one can certainly argue about.
Requiring a cable subscription to view online was a business decision. Given the millions NBC paid for the rights to these Games, it was NBC’s decision to make.
Stupid commentary. Well, when you have practically non-stop coverage for two solid weeks of sporting events, it’s a given that some of it will be riddled with clichés and stupid remarks. None was more stupid than announcer Bob Fitzgerald’s unfortunate foot-in-mouth comment identifying Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg (a character Eisenberg played in the movie “The Social Network”). At the same time, it was a pretty funny, entertaining gaffe.
The mispronunciation of names and places is almost a given at an international event such as the Olympics. From where I sat, I thought there was a lot less of this than in past Olympics.
The No. 1 and No. 2 complaints -- the fact that most of what we watched was tape-delayed and not commercial free -- really go to the crux of how NBC presents the Olympics.
Instead of my defending NBC, Dick Ebersol is far more eloquent in explaining NBC’s Olympics coverage philosophy than I am. Here’s Ebersol doing just that last week in a discussion with SportsOnEarth blogger Joe Posnanski (I suggest you click on the link and read the entire piece. This is just an excerpt):
“Ebersol, in what he says will be his only interview at these Games, tells me that [the] critics have it all wrong. The Olympics, he believes, are not to be treated like other sports. ‘That’s just nonsense,’ he says. ‘The Olympics are the biggest family television there is. The Olympics are one of the last events where a whole family can gather around a television set and spend the night together. People talk about how we should treat this like sports? You know, we’re getting an 18 rating some nights. Do you know what rating we would get if this was not under the banner of the Olympics? We’d be lucky to get a 1 rating for some of these sports. … This is our business model. The newspaper people have their own business model. We’re in the television business. We’re here to make great television.’ ”
Ebersol continues: “The key is storytelling. That’s by far the most important part of the Olympics. It’s the most important part of television. It’s not enough just to show the Games. We have to give people a reason to care, a reason to be invested.
“The other day when [Dominican 400-meter hurdler] Felix Sanchez won the gold medal we had told his story [about his grandmother dying on the day he was trying to qualify in Beijing]. We had been with him throughout. People knew him. So when he broke down on the stand, people cried with him. It would not have meant as much as a simple sports story.”
As for the tape-delay controversy, Ebersol notes that for the Olympics four years ago in Beijing he negotiated for the swimming finals to be held in the morning, Beijing time, so they could be shown live, in prime time, on U.S. TV. And this was when Michael Phelps was going for his eight gold medals.
In London, on the other hand, all of the swimming finals that were shown in prime time were on a tape-delay basis. And, Posnanski writes, the swimming shown tape-delayed from London “beat the ratings for Beijing on every single one of the first seven days.”
Ebersol tells Posnanski that in survey after survey only a small percentage of viewers say they want to watch Olympics contests live, as opposed to “after dinner.” And, as Ebersol notes, for the most part NBC did allow for live viewing online.
Here’s Ebersol’s ultimate defense of how NBC presents the Olympics, as he told Posnanski: “This year, really for the first time, I have had some time to watch the host country’s television. I’ve been watching the BBC, which is one of the most respected entities in the world, right? Well, they will cut away from races to show a British athlete who is finishing fifth. They openly root for their athletes on the air. It’s a different approach, but we have never done that. Nobody ever uses the word ‘we’ in our coverage, and if they did they wouldn’t last long.
“I believe our coverage is different from anyone else’s in the world. We do as many features on foreign athletes as American athletes. We tell the best stories, wherever we can find them. There’s a great tradition in American television of professionalism in coverage, and I believe we live up to that tradition.”
“Welcome to menopause-apalooza,” said Jane Lynch, opening up the show. The star of "Glee," who is rapidly becoming the female equivalent of Neil Patrick Harris when it comes to classy/comedic hosting and in this case roasting, was likely referring to Carrie Fisher, Ellen Barkin, Katey Sagal and the woman at the center of the evening, Ms. Roseanne Barr. And then, without much segue but with raucous audience approval, Lynch said, “Fuck Chick-fil-A.”
With a tagline of “Bring it, bitches,” Comedy Central delivered more than that on its “Roast of Roseanne,” which taped last weekend at the Hollywood Palladium and airs this Sunday night on the cable network.
The latest installment of these occasional specials -- which have become anticipated events and somewhat of a cottage industry -- is being relentlessly promoted across the network as “the mother of all roasts.” After Charlie Sheen and Pamela Anderson got toasted recently, it may just live up to that.
With a different cast of characters than usual up on the dais -- in addition to roast favorites such as Gilbert Gottfried and Jeffrey Ross, both of whom were incredibly and hysterically politically incorrect -- the evening became an opportunity to make amends, both personally and professionally.
Let's go back about 20-some-odd years, when Roseanne was in her heyday as the star of her smash-hit sitcom. Her drug-fueled romance with Tom Arnold was the Kristen Stewart-Robert Pattinson tabloid fodder of the day. Fairly predictably, their marriage imploded in a very ugly manner that left both much worse for the experience.
Apparently Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold, both of whom have long since moved on to new love interests, have not been in the same room for 18 years.
That's why it was absolutely shocking -- and we’re not spoiling anything here because this big reveal is key to how the network is hyping the show -- when in the middle of things, Arnold showed up and took the podium.
The audience was absolutely riveted. One person who had chosen to take that moment to step out of the ballroom was frozen in his tracks when Arnold was introduced. "I was like a deer caught in the headlights," he said.
Arnold started his spiel. "Rosie had 27 personalities, and only two of them liked me. One was a small German boy," he recalled. He reflected on their glory days -- what he called a white-trash Camelot -- when he got a tattoo of her on his chest and she had “Property of Tom Arnold” tattooed on her.
With his tattoo, Arnold said, after their split it was hard to get women to have sex with him.
After weaving his way down this kind of path, and how difficult it was to have Roseanne for an ex-wife, his set ended on a heartfelt, poignant note -- and we won't spoil that one for you.
But as she later put it in response to his appearance, "If I can bury my roiling, boiling hatred for him, then maybe there's a chance for world peace.”
And then, fixing the past, part two. As if anyone could ever forget that screeching, horrific, disrespectful and endlessly controversial rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner" before a Major League Baseball game, Roseanne launched into the 2012 version of the National Anthem to cap off her roast.
The Hollywood Palladium had become the home of the brave.
("The Comedy Central Roast of Roseanne" airs on Comedy Central Sunday, Aug. 12, at 10 p.m. ET/PT.)
Flanked by series star Jeff Daniels and executive producer Alan Poul, Aaron Sorkin was in the hot seat as he took questions about “The Newsroom” during a spirited session last week at the Television Critics Association summer press tour from some of the same people who have criticized the show as inauthentic and preachy.
The HBO drama, which premiered in June to solid ratings -- maintaining about 2 million viewers per episode -- and has already been renewed for a second season, has become a lightning rod for Sorkin haters, who seem to object to the often political pontification of characters he creates, particularly the fictional cable news anchor played by Daniels.
This all, of course, comes on the heels of Sorkin winning the Academy Award for screenwriting for “The Social Network” (2010) and an Oscar nomination this year for co-writing “Moneyball,” both adaptations of best-selling books, rather than original creations of his as “The Newsroom” is, and as his multiple Emmy Award-winning “The West Wing” was.
Before Daniels or Poul said a word, Sorkin explained that his political opinions are on the level of someone with a BFA in musical theater and that he thinks of himself first and foremost as a playwright.
"The thing I know most how to do is to write a play," he said. "I feel like a brilliant director will make it visually interesting."
Just like the clocked pitches in "Moneyball," the questions came fast and furious at Sorkin, who was clearly prepared for the challenge.
Asked whether he would respond to criticism of the show by making changes, Sorkin said anytime people are talking so much about a show, it's good for the business and that with HBO, the first season is locked before the first episode airs and changes cannot be made.
Not in response to any question, Sorkin then used his platform to state that a recent story that the entire writing staff was fired was untrue, that in reality there had been a couple of staffing changes in promoting two writers’ assistants to story editors and that one of the staff writers, Corinne Kingsbury, was unfairly singled out.
"She was identified as my ex-girlfriend, and she is not. I would hate for the implication to follow her for the rest of her life. She's very talented and brings a different sensibility to the show," he said.
But perhaps admitting that “The Newsroom” could use additional input, Sorkin said that next season paid consultants from television, print and online media will be used. He said that previously he sought free advice from journalistic luminaries over long lunches, and without naming their names, that people would recognize them as leaders in the industry.
One questioner pressed Sorkin on his depiction of women in the series, positing that they appear weak, incompetent and apologize too much and seem to exist mainly to serve the male characters on the show.
For example, one of “The Newsroom’s” women recently confused the country and the state of Georgia, a situation that would be unlikely to occur among the staff in any national newsroom. A female character plays an assistant who is quickly promoted in the newsroom -- questionably, since she seems to lack proficiency in basic tenets of the trade. But she does make an attractive love interest.
"I completely respect that opinion," Sorkin said about the critic’s view of the female characters. "But I 100% disagree with that. I think the female characters are every bit the equals of the men." He added that he has worked hard to establish that the women have qualities showing that they care about others, reach high and are thoughtful and curious.
"Hubris is always punished. Men and women screw up in roughly the same way," Sorkin said.
Daniels jumped in to defend his boss, saying one of the things he admires about his writing is that Sorkin’s characters all have flaws. "I love that,” Daniels said. His character, Will McAvoy, is a Republican whose viewpoints seem to be more in line with the Democratic Party.
"I want to make a clear distinction between me and the characters that are on the show," Sorkin said, jumping in again. "Most of the time I write about things I actually don't know very much about."
Legions of ATAS and AMPAS voters would tend to disagree.
What NBC Can Learn From the BBC -- and Vice Versa -- About Televising the Olympics. Observations From the Former GM of an NBC Affiliate
[Note: This guest blog entry is written by Bill Bauman. For many years Bauman was the GM of WESH, Hearst Television's NBC affiliate serving Orlando, Fla. He retired five years ago. We received the following essay along with this email from Bill the other day: "Greetings from Scotland, where I am spending my summers since retiring. I've had the chance to watch a lot of BBC Olympic coverage, and couldn't resist putting pen to paper, or whatever the computer analogy to that is."]
By Bill Bauman
Watching the summer Olympics in Great Britain this year is a fascinating television experience. The BBC is using 14 of their digital channels to broadcast live coverage of virtually every event, all day (and night) long. And it is entirely commercial free. Not a single spot. No “I approved this message” messages. No local news anchors pimping their upcoming breaking news. No weather cut-ins. No hyped promos for upcoming shows. Just 14 live streams of sports, on 14 channels.
The BBC is a UK government entity. The citizens of Great Britain own it, although it is managed independently. Every TV household pays an annual “license fee” of 145 pounds, or 226 dollars, to the BBC. This helps to generate about 775 million pounds ($1.2 billion) in revenue to “The Beeb.” The license fee is just a small part of the BBC revenue. Most comes from program sales, government grants, and other business income. It is a nice bit of cash flow largely unhampered by economic conditions or elections.
In return for this unfettered revenue, UK viewers get a multitude of BBC TV channels, all commercial free, plus multiple radio channels and websites that stream programs. The Beeb will argue that their viewers get a higher quality of programming than any of their competitors can provide. This includes highly produced (expensive) dramas, great sports coverage, solid documentaries and the BBC world news service, including the outstanding 24/7 BBC News Channel. Sky television is the big competitor, and Rupert Murdoch’s deep, deep pockets make for a competitive landscape. But there is no doubt the BBC has some great programming.
Which brings me back to the Olympics. Did I mention 14 channels, commercial free, all day and all night long? As an American it is strange to be watching live Olympic coverage with all the coverage focused on “Team GB.” The BBC is having a ball showing the athletes of Great Britain. There is no scoreboard of medals, because everyone understands the Chinese and Americans are going to win the most.
And the Brits tend to celebrate the athletes and the competition instead of the medal count. But the BBC revels in every medal, of whatever shade, “Team GB” wins.
While the live stream coverage is fun to watch, there are a few American television tricks I’d like to see. To my mind, the BBC is so committed to live coverage that they use too few replays. And when they show a replay, they tend to miss the best action. The BBC could use some help with graphics. Maybe a medal count once in a while. And a points scoreboard. Some name fonts?
And the old TV guy in me says, “dress up!” For God sakes, you male commentators are on national television broadcasting the Olympic games to your home country. A tee shirt and jeans is just not acceptable. Roone Arledge would have you in a tie and matching blazers with a BBC or Olympic logo on your pocket. It’s a big deal. You could at least put on a coat and tie. You are also representing your country. The women presenters dress much better.
I’m guessing a lot of Americans would resent paying $226 a year to the government for commercial-free HD channels, radio and Web. (“European Socialism.”) But this summer, it looks like quite a bargain.
Author of this blog entry, Bill Bauman, is a retired U.S. TV GM. Here he's visiting Omaha beach in Normandy, France. Bill also runs a consultancy, the Bauman Media Group
Oprah Attacks Major Media Outlet for Kowtowing to Her Some Years Ago and Then Gleefully Attacking Her This Past March, During the 'Worst Week' of Her Life. Oprah Is Wrong on Both Counts
I was clearing out past shows on my DVR the other night, and one of the programs I was finally able to watch was the second part of “Oprah Builds a Network,” which debuted on OWN about two weeks ago, on July 15, 2012. It was about Oprah Winfrey building OWN.
This part two of the show began with Oprah, her best friend Gayle King, and OWN co-president Sheri Salata all talking to one another in a hotel room on March 25, 2012. They were talking about the previous seven days. During those seven days it had been widely reported that OWN was laying off 30 people and that Rosie O’Donnell’s highly touted talk show on OWN was being canceled.
Referring to the week, Oprah was saying, “I think if I was to think of good times and bad times and the rollercoaster of life, I would say that certainly I don’t know of a worse week of my entire life.”
Oprah continued, “One of the reasons why -- if not THE reason why this was one of the worst weeks of my life -- is because I think of every employee as a person first. As a human being first. As a human being with a family.
“We had many conversations about where we were as a company, and how we were going to be able to sustain ourselves. And I knew from the first time that I stepped in as CEO and started to sit in those meetings and look at the real numbers on the page that the only way through is that you’re going to have to end it or you’re going to have to make some cutbacks now so you’ll be able to go forward.
“So the idea of having to let 30 people go, that was really rough. It was a tough decision.”
Then, Oprah added, “Now, I knew, having been a member of the whole celebrity thing all these years, that everything you do gets magnified. I certainly did not expect the velocity of Schadenfreude, meaning people sort of lying in wait for you to fail or make a mistake, that I experienced that week.” Her voice seemed to be breaking as she finished the sentence.
It was here that I expected Oprah to give a number of examples of the things that were said about her that week that were clearly Schadenfreude attacks. But I was surprised when she said, in fact, that she only read one press account that week at all.
“Let me just say that I only read one thing -- that was sent to me, and let me say that I even regret that. I read the USA Today, and that was enough for me because that was the antithesis of how I’ve lived my whole life. That was enough and that was the worst.” Oprah continued without pausing, “The very same people who are bowing at your feet, and telling you how great you are, when the winds of change come, those very same people will be at your throat. And the winds of change always come. That’s what this week was.”
Wow. Now I had to get that USA Today article that Oprah said was “the worst.” In the show they had flashed the headline of the piece, “Oprah Winfrey Isn’t Quite Holding Her OWN,” but I wanted to read the entire article. Also, I wasn’t clear about her reference to those who had at one time bowed at her feet who then turned on her that week. But she quickly explained herself.
“The instant a crisis comes to me,” Oprah continued, “or difficulty, or challenge comes to me, I instantly go to the space of ‘well, what does this really mean?’ And what I thought of, as I am sitting, pained by the notion of Oprah no longer standing on her own, it reminded me of my very favorite of all the things ever written about me in all the years -- the only article I ever saved.
(Oprah gets up and moves to her desk) “Hold on. I think I still have it here. The only article in the millions of articles that have ever been written about me that I ever saved. (She takes the article out of a drawer in the desk.) I have it. Aren’t you glad I have it. The only thing I have ever saved in 27 years of stories, is this story. ‘World is Oprah’s Classroom' (Oprah then shows the article to the camera), from, what? The Life section of USA Today, 2008. It’s the only thing I ever saved.
“And I thought, isn’t it interesting that the same paper that provided you your favorite, you know, defining ‘that is what I want to be in life’ [moment] now, not even four years later, comes back and [runs an article] that brings you to your -- feet. Be wary of people at your feet.”
Clearly, this was Oprah’s “ah-ha” take-away lesson from this situation. First, according to Oprah, USA Today bowed at her feet and then, almost four years later, gleefully wrote a terrible article about her the moment she had some challenges professionally.
But journalists and newspapers, if they are doing their jobs correctly, should be doing neither of these things. Oprah’s accusations were a scathing attack on journalists and a popular mainstream media outlet.
A simple examination of the stories involved, in fact, shows that Oprah’s evaluation in both instances is just plain wrong. Don’t just take my word for it -- click on the links below and read the articles yourself.
The 2008 piece was published in USA Today on March 3, 2008. It was written by USA Today’s book critic, Bob Minzesheimer. I do not know Mr. Minzesheimer. It was a cover story in the Life section, and thus among the longest pieces that USA Today publishes: about 1,700 words.
It’s not a news story. It’s a feature piece about a new twist Winfrey was about to introduce in connection with her Oprah Book Club. Oprah spoke with Minzesheimer at some length about the project in a phone interview. The feature he wrote is a rather straightforward account about both the phenom that was Oprah’s Book Club, and the project on which Oprah was about to embark: A 10-week seminar -- to discuss her latest book club choice -- over the Internet. More than 700,000 people had signed up to attend the virtual seminar. The feature article also talked about one of Oprah’s pet interests -- spiritual enlightenment -- because that was the subject of the book that the seminar was going to be about.
The article is neither cloying nor puffery. It’s a very professional feature story penned by Mr. Minzesheimer. To say that Mr. Minzesheimer or that USA Today was “bowing at her feet” by writing and publishing the piece, respectively, is an odd interpretation at best.
Now, on to the piece “Oprah Winfrey Isn’t Quite Holding her OWN” that ran in USA Today on March 21, 2012, and so wounded Winfrey. This was a news article written by Gary Levin, who has covered the TV beat for USA Today for a number of years. I know Gary. As I’ve told him a number of times, I think he’s one of the best reporters on the TV beat. His articles are accurate, clear, concise, insightful. They read smart. Given that it’s USA Today and Levin can’t write as long as some other reporters do, he has perfected the art of being copious yet succinct. Furthermore, I don’t think I’ve ever read a piece Gary has written that I didn’t think was fair.
So I’m not sure why Oprah said his article about the problems at OWN -- including the laying off of 30 people and the canceling of Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show -- was “the worst.” Perhaps the headline bothered her -- but maybe Oprah is not aware that most reporters at newspapers do not write the headlines that accompany their stories.
In the article, Levin wrote that OWN’s journey thus far has been “tumultuous.” Well, it has been. He quotes an analyst who said that OWN’s ratings “aren’t coming in anywhere near as forecast” and that Discovery may be considering pulling the plug on the network. Again, this is Levin quoting a named, on-the-record analyst from SNL Kagan, a respected company that follows the cable industry closely. He then quotes a named Discovery spokesperson saying that pulling the plug on the network is “absolutely not” being considered, and that Discovery is “in it for the long term.”
Levin then recounts some of the tumultuous history of OWN to date through March. Again, all of it was true. He ends his piece with OWN co-president Erik Logan saying that with the layoffs and other changes “we are poised for some tremendous growth from a business and ratings point of view.” Then, speaking of some upcoming shows on OWN, Logan says, “We’re much more confident that (they’re) much more on-brand than they were last summer.”
Levin’s piece was neither mean-spirited nor biased. It was an honest accounting of the news of the week about OWN, with some relevant explanation and analysis.
Sheri Salata, the co-president of OWN and the former executive producer of Oprah’s syndicated talk show, even told Oprah on the segment of “Oprah Builds a Network” where Oprah talks about her “worst week” that the “energy of all this, this week … we knew was coming. This is not a huge surprise.” Salata said the press reaction to the events of the week, that OWN had laid off employees and had canceled “a show [Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show] that had gotten so much press to begin with” was a “law of physics.” If Oprah had any reaction to Salata’s remarks, it wasn’t shown.
I’m also puzzled why Oprah characterized what Levin had written about her and OWN as “the antithesis of how I’ve lived my whole life.”
Here were Oprah’s final words about her “worst week” as she expressed them on the show: “I thought that in past years, having had to deal with the media and having to deal with various things that had gone wrong or decisions that I had made, that I knew what that felt like to be bombarded with that kind of negativity. The fact you’re not exempted from it, the fact that no matter what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve done, or how great the accolades were, that you are still susceptible to that kind of Schadenfreude, really, was really very helpful to me. So I will move though life differently, enhanced by that experience of the valley, and will be a better businesswoman and better person because of it.”
I realize that for whatever reason, Oprah thinks that many of the press accounts of that week were written from the viewpoint of the pleasure those of us in the press derived from her -- and OWN’s -- misfortunes.
Knowing that Oprah takes her spiritual journey through life seriously, I would have hoped that her take-away would have been that most of the media accounts written that week -- and certainly the one she cites as the only one she read, in USA Today -- were honest, frank reports about what seemed to be going on at OWN, written by hard-working journalists, who, as is usually the case, are on the outside of the company they were writing about, looking in. Schadenfreude had nothing to do with most of the reports.
I think Oprah found the stories hurtful because she interpreted them as saying that she had let people down. And maybe some of that is true. But as Salata put it, most of what was written that week Oprah should have known was coming. It should not have been a surprise.
Oprah’s reaction was one that happens too often. The messenger -- the press -- gets blamed for honestly reporting the negative news that’s out there.
The only surprise here is that someone as media savvy as Oprah was the one doing the blaming.