America’s first lady of talk shows, Oprah Winfrey, is known for surpassing her competition to become the most-watched daytime show host on television. Her natural style with guests and audiences on The Oprah Winfrey Show earned her widespread popularity, as did her own production company, Harpo, Inc.
A difficult childhood
Oprah Gail Winfrey was born on January 29, 1954, to Vernita Lee and Vernon Winfrey on a remote farm in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Her name, according to the Bible, should be Orpah, but because of the difficulty of spelling and pronunciation, she became it known as Oprah almost from birth. Winfrey’s unmarried parents separated shortly after her birth, leaving her in the care of her maternal grandmother on the farm.
As a child, Winfrey entertained herself by “playing” in front of an “audience” of farm animals. Under her grandmother’s strict guidance, she learned to read at age two and a half. When she was two, she spoke to her church congregation about “when Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Day.” Then Winfrey skipped kindergarten after writing a note to her teacher on the first day of school that she belonged in first grade. After that year, she was promoted to third grade.
At six, Winfrey was sent north to join her mother and two half-brothers in a Milwaukee ghetto, an extremely poor and dangerous neighborhood. At twelve, she was sent to live with her father in Nashville, Tennessee. For a short time she felt safe and happy and began making speeches at social gatherings and churches, and once earned five hundred dollars for a speech. She knew then that she wanted to be “paid to speak.”
Winfrey was again called back by her mother and she had to leave the safety of her father’s home. The poor, urban lifestyle negatively affected Winfrey as a young teenager, and her problems were exacerbated by repeated sexual abuse beginning at age nine by men trusted by others in her family. Her mother worked odd jobs and did not have much time for supervision.
After years of bad behavior, Winfrey’s mother sent her back to her father in Nashville.
A turning point
Winfrey said her father saved her life. He was very strict and provided her with guidance, structure, rules and books. He required his daughter to complete weekly book reports, and she would forgo dinner until she learned five new vocabulary words each day.
Winfrey became an excellent student and also participated in the Drama Club, Debate Club and Student Council. In an Elks Club speech contest, she won a full scholarship to Tennessee State University. The following year, she was invited to attend a White House Youth Conference. Winfrey was crowned Miss Fire Prevention by WVOL, a local radio station in Nashville, and was hired by the station to read afternoon newscasts.
Winfrey became Miss Black Nashville and Miss Tennessee during her first year at Tennessee State. The Nashville affiliate of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) offered her a job; Winfrey turned it down twice, but eventually took the advice of a speech teacher who reminded her that job offers from CBS were “the reason people go to college.” The show was seen every night on WTVF-TV, and Winfrey was Nashville’s first African American co-anchor of the evening news. She was nineteen years old and still a student in college.
After Winfrey graduated, WJZ-TV in Baltimore, Maryland, scheduled her for local news updates, called cut-ins, during Good Morning, America, and soon she was moved to the morning talk show Baltimore Is Talking with co-host Richard Sher. After seven years on the show, the general manager of WLS-TV, a Chicago affiliate of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), saw Winfrey in an audition video sent to her by producer Debra DiMaio. At the time, her ratings in Baltimore were better than those of Phil Donahue, a national talk show host, and she and DiMaio were hired.
Winfrey moved to Chicago, Illinois, in January 1984 and took over as host at A.M. Chicago, a morning talk show that was consistently last in the ratings. She changed the show’s focus from traditional women’s issues to current and controversial (debatable) topics, and after a month the show was even with Donahue’s program. Three months later, it had inched forward. In September 1985, the program, renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show, was expanded to an hour. Donahue then moved to New York City.
In 1985, Quincy Jones (1933-) saw Winfrey on television and thought she would make a good actress in a film he was producing with director Steven Spielberg (1946-). The film was based on the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1944-). Her only acting experience until then was in a one-woman show, The History of Black Women Through Drama and Song, which she performed during an African American theater festival in 1978.
Popularity of Oprah
The popularity of Winfrey’s show skyrocketed after the success of The Color Purple, and in September 1985, distributor King World bought syndication rights (the rights to distribute a television program) to air the program in 138 cities, a record for first-time syndication. Although Donahue aired on two hundred stations that year, Winfrey won her slot by a 31 percent margin, drew twice as many viewers in Chicago as Donahue, and carried the top ten markets in the United States.
In 1986, Winfrey received a special award from the Chicago Academy for the Arts for unique contributions to the city’s artistic community and was named Woman of Achievement by the National Organization of Women. The Oprah Winfrey Show won several Emmys for Best Talk Show, and Winfrey was honored as Best Talk Show Host.
Winfrey formed her own production company, Harpo, Inc. in August 1986 to produce the subjects she wanted to see produced, including the television drama miniseries based on Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, which featured Winfrey along with Cicely Tyson , Robin Givens, Olivia Cole, Jackee, Paula Kelly and Lynn Whitfield. The miniseries aired in March 1989 and a regular series called Brewster Place, also starring Winfrey, debuted on ABC in May 1990. Winfrey also owned the screen rights to Kaffir Boy, Mark Mathabane’s autobiographical book (which has to do with a story about himself). Growing Up Under Apartheid in South Africa, as well as Toni Morrison’s (1931-) novel Beloved.
In September 1996, Winfrey started an on-air reading club. On September 17, Winfrey stood up and announced that she wanted to “get the country reading.” She urged her enthusiastic fans to rush to the stores to buy the book she had chosen. They would then discuss it together on the air the following month.
The initial response was amazing. The Deep End of the Ocean had generated substantial sales for a first novel; 68,000 copies had hit the stores since June. But between the last week of August, when Winfrey told the publisher her plans, and the on-air announcement in September, Viking printed ninety thousand more. By the time the discussion aired on October 18, seven hundred fifty thousand copies had been printed. The book became a No. 1 bestseller, and another 100,000 were printed before February 1997.
The club made Winfrey the most powerful book marketer in the United States. It sent more people to bookstores than morning news shows, other daytime shows, evening magazines, radio shows, print reviews and special articles combined. But after six years with her book club, Winfrey decided to cut back in the spring of 2002 and no longer have the book club as a monthly feature.
Despite being one of the richest women in America and the highest-paid entertainer in the world, Winfrey has given generously to charitable organizations and institutions such as Morehouse College, the Harold Washington Library, the United Negro College Fund and Tennessee State University.
Winfrey renewed her contract with King World Productions to continue The Oprah Winfrey Show during the 2003-2004 television season. The Winfrey and Harpo production company plans to develop additional syndicated television programs with King World.
For more information
Brooks, Philip. Oprah Winfrey: a voice for the people. New York: Franklin Watts, 1999.
King, Norman. Everybody loves Oprah! New York: Morning, 1987.
Patterson, Lily. Oprah Winfrey: talk show host and actress. Hillside, New Jersey: Enslow, 1988.
Stein, Tanja Lee. Oprah Winfrey: success with an open heart. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 2001.
Waldron, Robert. Oprah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.