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Most Influential CEOs: Oprah Winfrey Adds Cause to Clout

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The talk-show host and Harpo CEO has made free and open speech a best-selling product.

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In 2006, Oprah Winfrey surprised some Harvard Business School students by showing up in their classroom, taking a seat at the back of the hall while the class was presented with a case study on Harpo Productions, Oprah's media company. Although the television talk-show icon had been invited to the campus, no one thought she'd actually appear. But there she was, ready to listen to some of Harvard's brightest attempt to answer the question, "What is Winfrey in the business of?"

The students had some theories. Through dogged research into the private company Winfrey launched in 1988, members of the class had concluded that Harpo was about much more than delivering entertaining television shows or magazine stories. Each person who surrounds Winfrey expressed a conviction that the company was on a mission to make the world a wiser, kinder place, and be financially successful along the way. According to their interview reports, at every Harpo meeting, when an executive launched a discussion, he or she would begin the conversation with "Here is my intention...."

At the end of the Harvard presentation, Winfrey stood to talk to the class, confirming the study's thesis by saying:
If you only desire to make money, you can do that. Obviously, everybody in here is going to make money. Everybody in here is going to have a level of financial success that most people in the world will not know. But what I will tell you -- and I know this for sure too -- that the money only lasts for a while in terms of making you feel great about yourself. In the beginning, the money is to get nice things. And once you've gotten those nice things, I think some of the most unhappy people I know are the people who've acquired all the things and now they feel like, 'What else is there?' What else is there? What else is there? And that feeling of 'what else is there' is the calling -- is the calling trying to say to you [that] there is more than this. There is more than this.
No doubt skeptics -- and readers of the new Kitty Kelley-authored unauthorized biography, Oprah -- will argue that Winfrey's push to build her media empire was fueled by a different sort of energy altogether: her innate and possibly destructive need to expand her own power, fame, and media domination. That drive, it's argued in Kelley's book, is what prompted the broadcaster early on to publicize the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, confessing to her audience on the show without forewarning her producers. Some say it's also behind Winfrey's "outing" of other taboo but ratings-generating topics, such as erotic asphyxiation. In that case, again according to Kelly's book, Winfrey chose to go ahead with the show even after psychiatric experts warned against discussing the topic on air and rightly predicted that the program would unintentionally invite deadly experimentation among viewers. (According to Kelly's book, one father sued the Oprah show for airing a program on the subject after he found his son dead at home, the TV still turned on.)

But Oprah's backers make up a much larger constituency -- two years ago her show attracted 9 million viewers per weekday, and now pulls in just over 7 million -- and have just as much arsenal to demonstrate how Oprah has tried to use her influence to positively change the way we live.

Most significantly (though perhaps least quantifiably), Oprah's determination to shine a light on any topic -- depression, incest, sexual dysfunction, cancer -- has likely saved more lives than it has ever endangered. By bringing experts onto her show and explaining to viewers how and where they can find out more about a topic or get help, she has repeatedly provided lifelines to her audience. Writing in The New Yorker about the Kelley book, Lauren Collins points out that it's not easy to get criticism of Winfrey's outrageous comments to stick:

While trying to nail Oprah for being unpatriotic -- discussing why American audiences failed to warm to the film Beloved, which she produced, Oprah told the Times of London, "People in America are afraid of race and any discussion about race" -- Kelley inadvertently reminds us what a sage and fearless inquisitor of race, and the politics thereof, Oprah has been.
In 2007, Winfrey chose to endorse Barack Obama for president, even though the move, her first political endorsement, risked alienating a sizable portion of her audience and represented a departure from her much safer apolitical position.

Publishers and authors can thank Oprah's Book Club -- not without its own controversies -- for getting people reading and buying books again. Then there's Oprah's Angel Network, which allows viewers to donate small amounts of money that are pooled and directed toward well-vetted projects. It has raised more than $70 million for international humanitarian causes in the US and around the world.

A few of Oprah's talk-show causes have managed to become public policy. Just last month, Oprah launched No Phone Zone day, urging her fans to pledge never to text or talk on the phone while driving. Her show, broadcast live from Detroit and running in conjunction with events by community groups throughout the US, emphasized eye-opening statistics. For example, anyone who saw the show or its media coverage learned that texting while driving is equivalent to drinking four shots of alcohol before getting behind the wheel. During the show, Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan signed a bill banning texting while driving in the state.

Winfrey was also instrumental in supporting the National Child Protection Act signed by Bill Clinton in 1993. The act helped create better official records and case histories of child abuse offenders.

In 1998, Winfrey took on Texan beef farmers who tried to sue her for defamation when she said on air that the fear of mad cow disease "has stopped me cold from eating another hamburger!" The farmers feared her comments would affect beef sales, but Winfrey fought back and won. (The battle is not over, say food activists. Thirteen states, including Texas, still have Food Libel Laws in place.) Her post-victory remark to the press that year may be her life's motto, "Free speech doesn't just live, it rocks."

Next, Oprah will turn her considerable corporate acumen and cultural sway to a new venture, a cable network named OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. Last November, she announced that she would be ending her daily talk show in 2011. Stay tuned for a show finale that is likely to break all records for viewers watching and teardrops shed.

See also, Hollywood CEOs: Oprah

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