own destiny — and in a position to influence the consumer and lifestyle habits of millions of viewers, listeners, and readers worldwide. Additionally, she represents a brand of business leadership focused more on long-term value creation than meeting quarterly profit projections. She has also developed some of the industry’s most successful media partnerships. Because of these achievements, BLACK ENTERPRISE has named Harpo Inc. its 2008 Industrial/Serv ice Company of the Year.
Winfrey has spent her entire business career beating the odds. Intuition and timing have been her strongest allies in her ascent. “She’s got a really good gut,” says Gayle King, her best friend, XM radio host, and editor-at-large of O, The Oprah Magazine, “and her gut doesn’t fail her.”
By the age of 22, Winfrey had broken barriers as the first black woman to co-anchor the news in the Nashville, Tennessee, and Baltimore markets. In 1978, the 24-year-old discovered her niche, switching from delivering news to co-hosting People Are Talking, a local talk show, to fulfill contractual obligations.
In 1984 she was offered the opportunity to revive a fledgling morning show called A.M. Chicago at ABC affiliate WLS-TV in Chicago. However, she told Tim Bennett, the station’s anxious promotions manager (who would become Harpo’s president years later), that she would not be involved in any promotions, particularly because she believed the promotional campaign in Baltimore created a misleading expectation of her performance there. “For me, the most important thing has been to get the lesson,” Oprah explains. “That is the mantra for my life. Get the lesson and then you can move on.” Her strategy: speak at local events to increase her visibility and spread the word about the Windy City’s latest talk show phenom.
It worked. Within six weeks of her debut, she was beating the award-winning king of daytime talk shows, Phil Donahue, in his own city. “It was unbelievable,” recalls Bennett of how quickly the show’s ratings continue to increase. “Big stations in big markets are like battleships. They take years to turn around.” A year later, the program was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. The stage was set. Her message of transformation and empowerment would resonate with housewives and female professionals alike. She became a national sensation.
One of Winfrey’s shrewdest business moves was acquiring the rights to her talk show. In fact, Bennett calls 1988 a “magical moment.” Under the Financial Syndication Rules, the Federal Communications Commission did not allow networks or their stations to profit from distribution. As a result, syndication companies were enjoying all the profits. The law, however, did not restrict talent from brokering a distribution deal. So Winfrey proposed buying the show from ABC and, through a syndication agreement with King World, she agreed to continue to air the show for five years on the network’s stations. The Oprah Winfrey Show was sold as a lead-in to local news, one of the most profitable time slots in TV.
Winfrey gained complete creative and financial control of her program — a feat accomplished by only