You might say this company puts the "O" in Oprah. Harpo controls the entertainment and media interests of talk show host/actress/producer Oprah Winfrey. Before its run ended in May 2011, its flagship The Oprah Winfrey Show was the highest-rated TV talk show in history, seen in almost every US market and 145 countries. Harpo also owns 50% of The Oprah Winfrey Network, a joint venture with Discovery Communications that operates startup cable channel OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. In addition to TV, Winfrey's O, The Oprah Magazine, published with Hearst Magazines, boasts a circulation of over 2 million. Other activities include a SIRIUS XM Radio program and feature film production. Oprah started Harpo in 1986.
With her media empire showing few signs of losing strength, Winfrey ranks among the top paid and most powerful celebrities in entertainment. She was also the first black woman to join the ranks of Forbes magazine's list of billionaires.
Harpo is not alone in the world of personality-driven production businesses: talk show host David Letterman, for example, has his Worldwide Pants shingle and director Ron Howard (along with producing partner Brian Grazer) drives the creative output of Imagine Entertainment. Few of those businesses are as diversified as Oprah's production company, a quality it shares with much bigger media conglomerates like Hearst or Meredith. It is also unique in that its primary focus is promoting a single brand, and its livelihood is largely dependent on the continued popularity of a single personality. Its closest analog may be Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which simultaneously promotes and builds upon the Martha Stewart brand name.
The crown jewel in Oprah's holdings was her famous talk show, which reached more than 6 million viewers in the US each day, about three-fourths of whom were women. Viewership had gradually trended downward over the past several years (it averaged about 9 million in 2005) of its run due largely to the increasing number of channels and entertainment choices available on television and the Internet. Making headlines around the world amid a massive media frenzy, Winfrey retired from the daytime talk business when The Oprah Winfrey Show ended its 25-year historic run after more than 4,500 episodes in May 2011. The show was a staple of daytime TV schedules since it began syndication in 1986. It was syndicated through a partnership with CBS Television Distribution.
The end of the Oprah show on broadcast TV is not end of Oprah on television, though. Harpo, in partnership with Discovery, launched cable channel OWN in 2011 that carries a new Oprah-hosted show called Oprah's Next Chapter. The network's programming is focused on themes familiar to Oprah viewers: inspirational life stories and self-help topics.
Meanwhile, Harpo is working to diversify beyond the Oprah persona by expanding its portfolio of media properties. Harpo has brought country singer Shania Twain to television with her own talk show on the Oprah Network. Harpo also produces a slate of popular talk shows including The Rachael Ray Show (featuring Food Network star Rachael Ray), the Dr. Phil show (with celebrity therapist Dr. Phil McGraw), and the Dr. Oz show. Some of these efforts have not been so successful. The company helped launch The Rosie Show, a daytime talk show starring Rosie O'Donnell, in the fall of 2011. However, the network cancelled the show in 2012, paying O'Donnell $15 million to buy her out of what was a two-year $40 million contract.
Oprah's brand has not saved her magazine from the challenges faced by the publishing world. O, The Oprah Magazine (introduced in 2000) is still one of the top magazine titles in America, but ad pages fell dramatically during a tough recession. Publishing partner Hearst launched a redesign of the magazine in 2010 to try and boost readership. Oprah's book club, which has 2 million members, continues to have a transformative effect on book publishing, however. Harpo is hoping to extend its influence into the world of e-books by incorporating its selections into devices such as Apple's iPad. – less