By Steven Barboza
It’s common knowledge that self-made billionaire Oprah Winfrey, who sits atop the latest Forbes Celebrity 100 power list, is both kingmaker and rainmaker.
She helped to change the political calculus of the race for President, early on throwing her weight behind Candidate Obama. As a media personality she wields her influence as a sort of magic wand, creating instant winners in the marketplace. Oprah, as we all know, has the unique and highly prized ability to tap into the spending impulses of tens of millions of female consumers.
What’s not well-known, however, is that the “Oprah effect” itself has spawned an entire industry — a national corps of publicity mavens who cater to the whims of those who dream of some day becoming an Oprah guest.
“There are people now whose job is to get you on the Oprah show, or to get an Oprah promotion,” said James Lou, U.S. Chief Strategy Officer for the DDB ad agency. “I don’t think Oprah necessarily would think ideally about that, because I think she wants [people] to feel like she has discovered things, as opposed to this group of systems and companies that actually feed her things.”
But the Oprah juggernaut is too huge to be spoon fed by Oprah herself. She alone couldn’t possibly ferret out all the books, goods and services worthy of being featured under the umbrella of her brand, and so it was inevitable that the “O” empire — consisting of a television show, magazine, website, movie production house, book club, radio channel, and now a TV network — would give rise to an Oprah-servicing industry.
Publicists, media coaches, and all manner of PR folks indirectly support the show. They pitch potential “Oprah stories,” train would-be Oprah guests, and smooth the rough edges of speakers, celebrities, authors, politicians, doctors, subject experts and others who need polishing in order to graduate to Oprahdom.
Oprah’s ability to run through thousands of guests per year creates a need for well-prepped guests. (Other shows benefit as well.) Her show is now in its 25th season, and 4,425 original shows have aired, featuring 28,000 guests, according to an Oprah spokesperson. That equates to an average of between six and seven guests per show.“That’s an industry in itself,” said Lou, adding that potential guests want to be attached to the show. Oprah after all is at the crest of a $7 trillion wave of female consumer buying power.
Oprah’s immense power, he noted, “basically demonstrates the need for many people, including entrepreneurs, to know that Oprah is an awesome brand to be connected to. It is a brand that has an ability to be very generous. Her brand acts just like she does. It’s very giving. It’s able to lift others.”
A few publicists have a knack for getting people on the show. By her own count, Cynthia Stine, president of Promote Success in Dallas, TX, has gotten six acceptances so far. But she is careful never to make promises.
Oprah.com receives 20,000 emails per week. In addition, according to one media expert, Oprah receives 25,000 letters per week. So the odds are stacked heavily against a potential guest getting noticed. “Generally I don’t like to take on a client just for Oprah, because Oprah is a long shot,” Stine said. “Even if you have a really good story, and it’s right up Oprah’s alley, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a home run. There’s so much competition and there are so many factors outside of our control. I’ve had really great stories that they’ve said no to.”
Stine’s past successes may increase the odds in her clients’ favor. “Once you get your first client on Oprah, it’s a lot easier, because now you have a producer you can call and that you can work with,” she said. “At least with our producer contact, we know that he’ll take our call. So we already have a leg up on Oprah. It’s not a guarantee, but it does help.”
Stine was able to book Iranian-American Anousheh Ansari, the first female private space explorer, on Oprah’s show. Stine said Ansari “really wanted her story to inspire women around the world, particularly in Iran. Oprah is one of the few [American] shows that air in Iran.”
“Our client remembered being a young girl in a burka looking at the stars and thinking I’m going to get there some day — and she made it happen,” said Stine. “We pitched Oprah. We promised the first interview once she landed and that she would shoot some footage in space.” The show aired in 2006.
Fees for pitching Oprah vary widely depending on the publicist or agency. Stine charges a basic rate of $150 per hour to draft a pitch and coach a client, relatively low by industry standards. Some agencies charge hundreds or even thousands of dollars per hour.