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Mission: Possible

Apr 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Her 20-year impact on the media is reason enough for the National Association of Broadcasters to bestow its Distinguished Service Award on Oprah Winfrey during the opening dinner of its convention April 19. But for Ms. Winfrey’s vast network of champions, the reasons for the NAB to honor her are much greater than that.
The award is given to an individual who has made “a significant and lasting contribution to the American system of broadcasting,” NAB guidelines state. Ms. Winfrey’s reach is a wide one, extending far past the talk show that is seen by 23 million people in 107 countries. Her corporate banner, Harpo, is an empire worth more than $1 billion. Companies under its auspices produce films and TV programs such as “Dr. Phil,” publish O, the Oprah Magazine, run the online service Oprah.com and own a studio in Chicago.
“People ask me all the time, `What’s she really like?”’ said Terry Wood, executive VP of programming for Paramount Domestic TV, Harpo’s partner in producing “Dr. Phil.”
“I tell them that the woman you have grown to love, the woman you see on television every day, who gets excited about life, who loves to discover and share-that’s the same woman I would see every day in the hallway when I worked for her at Harpo, and it’s the same woman I partner with on `Dr. Phil.’ Success has not changed her.”
Ms. Winfrey is a woman unabashedly on a mission, a talent and a producer who only involves herself in a project if it expands the understanding of the human condition. Her Oprah’s Book Club has created best sellers out of wonderful books, some of which were previously obscure; her Oprah’s Angel Network supports nonprofits that seek to make a difference in the lives of others around the globe.
“The Oprah Winfrey Show,” her TV talk show, is an institution that began exactly 20 years ago in Chicago, when Ms. Winfrey was hired by ABC station WLS-TV to host “AM Chicago.” King World began distributing the show, which was renamed after its host, nationwide in 1986, and, incredibly, after all these years, its ratings are stronger than ever. According to the NSS Ranking Report, “Oprah’s” household average for the February 2004 sweeps was up 16 percent over the same month last year. The 7.8 rating puts Ms. Winfrey’s audience total higher than it was six years ago.
“She has the ability to reach the audience and know what it is they want to know from the guests,” said Phil McGraw, who seemingly came out of nowhere when he began appearing regularly on “Oprah.” After five years of guest appearances, Dr. McGraw got his own series with Ms. Winfrey’s help. Dr. McGraw calls himself “a Ph.D from Oprah University.”
“Oprah is the most powerful communicator I have ever seen,” he said. “She is completely in the moment when she’s speaking to you.”
Ms. Winfrey has shared her own background without making it seem a confessional or a bid for attention. She was born in rural Mississippi and experienced hardship and abuse during her formative years.
“She changed what we believed was possible,” said motivational speaker Terrie Williams, a fan and the author of the top-selling “The Personal Touch: What You Really Need to Succeed in Today’s Fast-Paced Business World.”
“I say that not only meaning we black women, nor only black people, but all who view the conditions from which they come as a handicap.”
Ms. Winfrey’s series is booked to run through the 2007-08 season, though Tim Bennett, president of Harpo Productions, said, “I think we can expect it to have a longer life.”
Kate Forte, president of Harpo Films, is beginning production on “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” the next “Oprah Winfrey Presents” special for ABC, which is based on the Zora Neale Hurston novel and stars Halle Berry. As with all projects from Harpo, Ms. Forte said, “It’s important for Oprah to show the humanity of people.”
As for “Oprah” the talk show, the past season’s highlights ranged from the star’s 50th birthday celebration to “Oprah goes to Costco.” As for next season, the show’s executive producer Ellen Rakieten said, “We don’t think that far in advance, but Oprah will just instinctively know what the audience will want. She is the viewer, and they know it.”