Other stations took note of the young anchor. In 1976, Winfrey moved to Baltimore to co-anchor the 6 o’clock evening news. Not long after, she was also hosting the Baltimore edition of “Dialing for Dollars” and co-hosting a local talk show called “People Are Talking.” It was her first turn hosting a television talk show. It struck a chord with her.
In the fall of 1983, Oprah moved again, this time to Chicago, to host WLS-TV’s “A.M. Chicago,” a half-hour morning talk show that was suffering from perennially poor ratings. It was the beginning of big things for Winfrey.
“My first day in Chicago, September 4, 1983. I set foot in this city, and just walking down the street, it was like roots, like the motherland. I knew I belonged here,” she would later say.
Winfrey was an instant success as a talk show host. In a few short months after taking over, her show surpassed then-reigning talk-show king “Donahue” to become the top-rated talk show in Chicago. Other Chicago luminaries noticed the rising star in their midst, including nationally renowned film critic Roger Ebert, who helped Winfrey land her first deal to host a nationally syndicated talk show.
With the ink dry on September’s syndication deal, Winfrey’s show was broadcast nationwide, expanded to a full hour and renamed “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” At the same time, Winfrey founded Harpo Productions (“Harpo” is “Oprah” spelled backwards), which would later branch out to include Harpo Radio, Harpo Print and Harpo Films.
Now a national program, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” again trounced “Donahue,” bringing in twice the national audience of her talk show rival.
To better capitalize on that success, Harpo Productions assumed complete ownership and total production responsibilities for “The Oprah Winfrey Show” from Capitol Cities/ABC. With the 1988 deal, Harpo Productions became a force in national media. It quickly looked the part, spending $20 million on a 100,000-square-foot production facility in downtown Chicago.
By the early 1990s, Winfrey had translated her stardom into real financial power. But she wasn’t done reinventing. While her show was classified as a “tabloid talk show” in its early years, often with guests flaunting salacious problems, Winfrey soon grew tired of both the content and the format.
“I’m sick of people sitting in chairs stating their problems. Then we roll the videotape… then we have our experts on the topic… I’m in the ‘What’s next?’ phase of my career,” she said.
By the mid-‘90s, with the show still at the top of the ratings, Winfrey began to shift the focus toward larger subjects, including health issues, world politics and even spirituality. When she interviewed celebrities, the focus was often on the social and charitable causes with which they were involved.
Winfrey’s audience followed along with the change in focus. By the late ‘90s, her show had millions of daily viewers. And she had become a business in her own right. During this period, Harpo Productions took in roughly $150 million in annual revenues and supported about 200 employees in its Chicago headquarters. By 1998, Winfrey’s net worth was estimated at $98 million.
In 2000, with her show still going strong, Winfrey branched out, launching O, The Oprah Magazine. With a built-in audience in the tens of millions, Oprah’s magazine was an instant success, with Fortune hailing it as the most successful start-up in the history of the publishing business. In 2004, she added a sister magazine, called O at Home, which ran until 2008.
Winfrey has also been a force in the book-publishing world. Her Oprah’s Book Club has rewritten the bestseller lists since its inception in 1996. She also co-authored five books, adding to her fortune. In 2005, the undisclosed advance she received for a five-book deal was the largest advance in the history of book publishing, shattering the record previously held by former president Bill Clinton.
In addition, Winfrey also returned to radio, signing a three-year, $55 million contract with XM Satellite Radio in 2007.
Winfrey’s latest and largest gambit is The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), her own television channel that debuted in 2011, just as The Oprah Winfrey Show was finishing its final season. The network replaced the former Discovery Health Channel in approximately 80 million American homes. By 2015, OWN had expanded its reach, slightly, to 81.9 million homes.
Unlike the lion’s share of Winfrey’s other ventures, OWN has struggled. It was only watched by an average of 505,000 viewers when it first hit the airwaves, with an average prime-time audience of just 264,000. The network began an immediate overhaul of its operations, ousting CEO Christina Norman for Discovery executive Peter Liguori in May of 2011. Two months later, Winfrey took over as both CEO and chief creative officer.
By May 2012, the channel had hemorrhaged an estimated $330 million. Since then, Winfrey and other OWN managers have stressed that the network is still in its infancy. And she has doubled down on the venture, moving the headquarters for OWN operations from Chicago to a newly constructed three-floor space at West Hollywood’s The Lot. In doing so, she has closed down Harpo Productions, selling the Harpo headquarters for a reported $30.5 million and laying off roughly 200 employees.
Outside of OWN, Winfrey has pursued her other interests, acting in The Butler and Selma, the latter of which she executive produced.