Viewers Respond to Her Compassion

Nov 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

When the Oxygen Network debuted in 2000, television writers wondered if the “O” logo stood for the chemical symbol or for the woman who co-founded the network.
They had reason to think the logo stood for co-founder Oprah Winfrey. With her long-running daytime talk show, a magazine (O, The Oprah Magazine) and acclaimed film and TV productions on her resume, it wouldn’t be difficult to program a network of all Oprah, all the time, though While Oxygen does incorporate some of Ms. Winfrey’s work. Rather, it uses a combination of original and acquired programming from a variety of sources to target the audience Ms. Winfrey herself has so successfully tapped: women.
Though she is as much a celebrity as the people she interviews, Ms. Winfrey’s original career goal was to report the news-not be the news, said Tim Bennett, president of Harpo Productions, the company that has owned and produced “The Oprah Winfrey Show” since 1985.
Mr. Bennett first encountered Ms. Winfrey when he was the program director at Chicago’s WLS-TV, which hired the 20-year-old Ms. Winfrey away from an anchor job in Baltimore. The dispassionate, straight-to-camera role frustrated her, he said.

“What she is known for, what women like her for, the trust, compassion, respect she brings, those are assets that didn’t necessarily play well in her first career,” Mr. Bennett said. “She’d be speaking to someone who had faced tragedy, someone who was crying, and she would show emotion, too, and that doesn’t work if you are an anchor. That is what makes her strong today. She connects in a visceral way. At WLS, she replaced a pre-PBS Charlie Rose on the a.m. chat show `People Are Talking’ and began to excel at the more relaxed long- interviews and audience chats she’s known for.”
Mr. Bennett said Ms. Winfrey specifically targeted female audiences-but more from a sense that she was making a show that she herself would like to watch.
“Her true expression, her candor, her humor, came through when she took ownership of her own show. I am sure if she were working for a network, or for another company, she would be a big success, but I think she would feel restricted,” he said.
“There is so much research in this business, so much second-guessing, because the stakes are so high. There is not a lot guided by gut,” he added. “I have to say, she is guided that way. She has a natural gyroscope. She has a comfortability with who she is and with talking to all kinds of people.”
Over 18 seasons, “Oprah’s” audience hasn’t aged significantly, said Mr. Bennett. Viewership in the female, 18 to 34 demo increased nationally by 26 percent from 2001-02 to 2002-03; this year, it’s up 11 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research data supplied by “Oprah” distributor King World.
That bump in younger viewership is said to have played a role in keeping her on the air a bit longer: Despite recent talk of retiring from the airwaves, Ms. Winfrey in May extended her host contract with King World through the 2007-08 season.
Oprah Winfrey
Job title: Host/supervising producer, “The Oprah Winfrey Show”; chairwoman, Harpo Inc.; co-founder, Oxygen Network; editorial director, O, The Oprah Magazine
Date of birth: Jan. 29, 1954
Place of birth: Kosciusko, Miss.
Length of time in current gig: “Oprah”-the show-is in its 18th season.
Why her? Ms. Winfrey’s syndicated talk show continues to dominate its daytime competition in delivering female audiences. Sophomore syndicated show “Dr. Phil,” which Ms. Winfrey’s Harpo created and which stars former “Oprah” regular Dr. Phil McGraw, debuted to record ratings last season and has seen double-digit growth so far this season.