The philosopher Gilles Deleuze once mentioned an “eight year black hole” in his career, in which his publishing dwindled to almost nothing. Lately I’ve been feeling as though this blog has been sucked into the same black hole, since I haven’t posted anything in over a month. Sorry. Teaching and a host of other responsibilities have kept me from my running commentary on the past, present, and future of book culture. I’m back now, and hoping to sustain a pretty good push through the winter holidays.
Today I’m writing about Oprah. On Friday, November 19th, Winfrey announced that she’ll be pulling the plug on her daytime talk show in 2011, after 25 years on the air. You can read more about the details of the announcement here, in the New York Times.
Honestly, I’m a little surprised that this struck people as news. In 2006, I believe, Winfrey said that 2010-2011 would be the last season for Oprah. In any case, the real news — and what most likely prompted the public reminder of the talk show’s impending end — was Winfrey’s decision to launch a cable TV channel bearing her name. As if “Oxygen” wasn’t enough!
The cable channel got me thinking about a point that I raise in the conclusion to The Late Age of Print. There I examine how Winfrey seems to have inverted the usual strategy of branding. It used to be that products were branded as a means by which to differentiate them from other, similar products in the marketplace. No so with Oprah, who’s spawned TV shows, magazines, films, websites — indeed, a sprawling array of media and non-media products. As I observe in the conclusion, it’s not that Oprah products are branded; it’s more apt to say that the Oprah brand is “producted.”
The announcement of the cable TV channel’s launch made we wonder if I’d actually taken the analysis far enough. I’m tempted now to say that the Oprah label isn’t merely a brand. It performs far work than this. If you’ll forgive a momentary lapse into geek-speak, it may well be that Oprah is a platform upon which to build things, including “hardware” (i.e., media infrastructure and institutions), “operating systems” (i.e., the milieu or “culture” of those institutions), and “software” (i.e., the content or programming to fill those institutions).
The announcement of the cable TV channel also made me wonder what else Winfrey may have in store for us once The Oprah Winfrey Show has wrapped. For my purposes, I’m most interested in the fate of the Book Club, which has been hosted on the talk show since 1996. I seriously doubt that Winfrey will abandon books come 2011, given how much notoriety her bibliophilia has brought her. But perhaps, rather than simply recommending books, she’ll venture into publishing them herself. Isn’t that the next logical step? After all, people already routinely refer to the books she recommends as “Oprah books.” Who’s paying the actual publishers any mind — other than, of course, other publishers?
For more than a decade Winfrey has been the darling of the book publishing industry. In the coming age of the Oprah platform, what would it mean for the established publishers suddenly to become her…competitors?