110 N. Carpenter Street
Oprah Winfrey is most interested in concentrating on those topics that can actually help people improve their lives&mdash⁄ows on battered women and alcoholism, for example, or on building relationships with family members. This will both increase the power of the show and make people feel better about their lives.
Based in Chicago, and with additional offices in Los Angeles, Harpo Entertainment Group is one of the most successful production companies in the history of entertainment, one of the largest black-owned companies in the world, and the brainchild of one of the television industry's highest-paid performers ever, Oprah Winfrey (Harpo is Oprah spelled backwards). With productions ranging from made-for-TV movies and miniseries, to feature films and books, videotapes and CDs, Winfrey's reign as the Queen of Entertainment has extended almost from the inception of the company, winning both her and her company and show numerous awards.
Child Prodigy, 1957
Oprah Winfrey was already a budding public speaker in 1957, at the age of four, when she toured churches in Nashville, where she would recite the sermons of James Weldon Johnson. However, she had a rough start. Born in 1954 out of wedlock to teenage parents in Kosciusko, Mississippi, Winfrey lived in terrible poverty on her grandmother's farm. From the age of six to 13, she lived with Vernita Lee, her mother, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she was sexually molested and abused by male relatives; at the age of 14, Winfrey gave birth to a premature baby, who died shortly afterwards. After running away and being kicked out of a juvenile detention home because all the beds were filled, she was finally sent to Nashville, Tennessee, to live with her father, Vernon Winfrey. A barber and businessman, Vernon provided the discipline that was lacking in his daughter's life, instituting a strict curfew and stressing the value of education. Under his firm guidance, Oprah quickly changed her life's direction.
Broadcasting Start, 1973
In 1973, at the age of 19, Winfrey was hired as a reporter by WVOL, a radio station in Nashville, and her broadcasting career was off and running. During this time, she went to Tennessee State University, where she majored in Speech Communications and Performing Arts. In her sophomore year (1975), she moved to WTVF-TV in Nashville, becoming the first and youngest African American woman anchor at the station.
In 1976 Winfrey went to Baltimore, Maryland, where she joined the staff of WJZ-TV news as a news co-anchor. Two years later, she became, in addition to her duties as reporter and anchor, the host of that station's program "People Are Talking." In January 1984, Winfrey moved again, to Chicago, Illinois, where she would host WLS-TV's program "AM Chicago," a local half-hour talk show with sagging ratings, scheduled opposite Phil Donahue's top-rated show. One month after Winfrey became the host, the program had become the number one show in the city, and the producers gave Winfrey an extra half-hour for the show. In September 1985, they renamed it "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Also that year, Winfrey would costar, along with Whoopie Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Rae Dawn Chong, in Steven Spielberg's movie The Color Purple, based on the novel of the same name by Alice Walker. Her poignant performance (and her first-ever acting experience) as Sofia would win her a nomination for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress. The following year, she would costar with Matt Dillon in Native Son, the second movie adaptation of Richard Wright's 1940 classic novel.
Harpo Productions, Inc., 1986
Winfrey's love for the screen and her desire to bring quality entertainment projects into production were what prompted her to form her own production company, Harpo Productions, Inc., in 1986, with Winfrey as the chairman and Winfrey's agent, Jeffrey Jacobs, as the president and COO. Early that year, Jacobs managed to buy the syndication rights to the show and began distributing it through King World Productions. On September 8, 1986, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" was televised nationwide. Less than a year later, the program was ranked the top syndicated talk show in the United States, pushing out longtime leader "Donahue." In June 1987, the show received three Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Host, Outstanding Talk/Service Program, and Outstanding Direction. In June 1988, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" was awarded its second consecutive Daytime Emmy Award as Outstanding Talk/Service Program. The show would remain the number one talk show for 12 consecutive seasons, receiving a total of 32 Emmys, seven of which went to the host. Also in 1988, Winfrey received the International Radio and Television Society's "Broadcaster of the Year" Award, making her the youngest person and only the fifth woman ever to receive the honor. At the conclusion of the 1995--96 television season, Winfrey was honored with the most prestigious award in broadcasting, The George Foster Peabody Individual Achievement Award. Winfrey also was recognized by Time magazine as one of "America's 25 Most Influential People of 1996."
Harpo's first coproduced project was The Women of Brewster Place, a film released in 1989, in which Winfrey costarred with Paul Winfield, Robin Givens, and Moses Gunn, followed by a miniseries of the same name during the 1996--97 season, which recounted the lives of the female denizens of an inner-city brownstone, adapted from the Gloria Naylor novel. Other productions, such as Kaffir Boy, Mark Mathabane's autobiography of growing up under apartheid in South Africa, followed, as well as the 1998 feature film, Beloved, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Toni Morrison. Winfrey would spend ten years producing and would star in the film, directed by Jonathan Demme.
In October 1988, Harpo Productions made television history when it announced that it had assumed ownership and all production responsibilities for "The Oprah Winfrey Show" from Capitol Cities/ABC, making Oprah Winfrey the first woman in history to own and produce her own talk show. That year, the company spent $20 million to buy and renovate a huge, 100,000-square-foot television and film production facility located in downtown Chicago to house its headquarters, where "The Oprah Winfrey Show," as well as other Harpo Entertainment productions, would be produced. When originally purchased, the old complex featured three stages, screening rooms, production offices, a darkroom, kitchen facilities, and indoor parking. The renovation added office space, a gym, a larger stage for Winfrey's daily show, and an updated look for the exterior of the old building.
In 1991 Winfrey initiated The National Child Protection Act and testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to establish a national database of all convicted child abusers. On December 20, 1993, U.S. President William Jefferson Clinton signed into law the "Oprah Bill." Also that year, after eight years in syndication, Winfrey was at a crossroads both personally and professionally and began to think about retirement from the cockfighting ring the talk show industry had become. Instead, Winfrey changed the focus of her show, featuring poetry, music, literature, authors, and actors, as well as human issues such as dealing with the loss of a child, weight loss topics, and the like. The following year, Winfrey signed an unprecedented contract with King World, extending her show through the end of the 20th century. Winfrey also became one of King World's largest shareholders, with more than a million shares to her name.
By 1996 Winfrey was only the third woman in history (along with Mary Pickford and Lucille Ball) to own a major studio, and was personally worth an estimated $98 million. She also topped Forbes's list of the highest paid entertainers in the United States, replacing Bill Cosby. In September 1996, Winfrey announced the start of Oprah's Book Club, an on-air reading club, created with the idea to get the country more inspired about reading. All of the books Winfrey selected for the program became instant bestsellers, averaging over a million copies sold each.
At the start of the 1997--98 television season, Winfrey announced the creation of Oprah's Angel Network, a national effort targeted at her viewers with the goal of having them open their hearts and share with those in need the bounty and blessings in their own lives. One of the hallmarks of the Angel Network was The World's Largest Piggy Bank, a campaign that encouraged viewers to save their small change for a national fund to provide scholarships for college students; another was the volunteer work with Habitat to Humanity to build homes for the poor. Total revenue for 1997 reached $150 million, a 7.1 percent growth over the previous year. Also in 1997, Winfrey was named Newsweek's "Most Important Person" in books and media, and TV Guide's "Television Performer of the Year." She was also awarded a People's Choice Award for "Favorite Television Performer."
In 1995 ABC and Harpo Films announced a three-year agreement under which Harpo would produce six made-for-TV movies for the network under the "Oprah Winfrey Presents" banner, extending the relationship between ABC and Harpo, which had already produced a number of miniseries, movies, and primetime specials for the network, including "The Women of Brewster Place," Overexposed (1992), and There Are No Children Here (1993). The first title in the "Oprah Winfrey Presents" program was Before Women Had Wings, followed by the four-hour miniseries The Wedding, based on the Doubleday novel by Dorothy West, the last surviving member of the Harlem Renaissance. The company also optioned the rights to The Keepers of the House, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (1964) written by Shirley Ann Grau, chronicling the lives of a wealthy white Southern landowner, his black housekeeper, and their three children from the 1930s to the 1960s. Other projects in the pipeline for the company included adaptations of Their Eyes Were Watching God, based on a novel of the same name by Zora Neale Hurston; Paradise, another novel by Toni Morrison; and Katherine, a novel by Anchee Min.
In 1998 a group of Texas cattle owners filed a lawsuit against Winfrey for libel due to comments she made on her show about "Mad Cow Disease," claiming it adversely affected the market. Winfrey won the suit, which was watched closely by First Amendment rights advocates worldwide, when the jury determined she did not bad-mouth the beef industry. While the lawsuit was ongoing, Winfrey took over a local theater in Amarillo, Texas, turning it into an impromptu set for several months.
In October of that year, the company launched oprah.com, an online web site codeveloped by ABC Internet Group and Harpo Productions to allow more input from Winfrey's huge following of fans. In December 1998, Winfrey announced the creation of Oxygen Media, a new cable channel targeted at women. Joining the venture were big hitters in the entertainment world, such as Geraldine Laybourne, formerly president of Nickelodeon and the founder of Oxygen Media, as well as Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner, and Caryn Mandabach, producers of "Roseanne." Other backers included America Online and ABC. Also in 1998, King World Productions paid Harpo Productions $150 million to renew the contract for "The Oprah Winfrey Show," extending the talk show through at least the 2001--02 TV season; the show has historically represented approximately 40 percent ($200 million or so) of King World's annual revenue for several years. By the end of the 20th century, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" was the class act on the block, in a neighborhood riddled with smarmy talk shows, with a viewership of some 20 million throughout the world.
Principal Subsidiaries: Harpo Films, Inc.; Harpo Productions, Inc.; Harpo Video, Inc.