Oprah Winfrey reprised ‘Big Event TV’ with Harry and Meghan interview
Oprah Winfrey once again reminded the world of the power of broadcast TV.
Her blockbuster interview Sunday with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, captured at least 17 million viewers — a surprisingly high viewership in the era of streaming — and created reverberations around the world.
For the first time in years, TV viewers eagerly anticipated a primetime entertainment special, which CBS had promoted only on its airwaves in a throwback to a less-fragmented era of TV. Then, at the appointed time — Sunday at 8 p.m. — millions of viewers switched on a broadcast network and watched a riveting extravaganza, packed with commercials, unfold on their TV screens.
Short of the annual NFL Super Bowl, occasional Grammys and Oscar telecasts and the finale of “Game of Thrones,” there have been few other entertainment specials in the last decade that instantly became a cultural moment.
The interview turned the conversation to the health and very survival of the British monarchy.
Oprah Winfrey’s sit-down with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex lays bare Britain’s divides over race, class and culture.
“Let’s all bow down to the real queen here, it’s Oprah,” Tina Brown, a British journalist and former magazine editor, said Monday on “CBS This Morning,” which continued to tease and dole out segments from the three-hour and 20-minute interview conducted by Winfrey. “What an extraordinary interview that was,” Brown gushed.
Recorded in the Santa Barbara area in mid-February, the interview raised the specter of racism within Britain’s royal family and underscored a family rift that began soon after Prince Harry and Meghan married in 2018.
Analysts speculated the revelations could prove damaging to Harry’s father, Prince Charles, who is heir to the throne, as well as Prince William, who is second in line for the throne and Prince Harry’s older brother.
During the interview, Prince Harry and Meghan discussed frequent attacks on them by British tabloids and what they called a lack of support within the royal family for Meghan as a woman of color in an overwhelmingly white institution. Prince Harry offered that his father stopped taking his phone calls during a period of tense negotiations last year about the couple’s desire to step down as working members of the royal family.
Even though Meghan and Prince Harry signed a $100 million production deal with Netflix and Winfrey separately has a distribution deal with the Apple TV+ streaming service, it was CBS that secured the rights to distribute the program. The TV special was produced and is owned by Winfrey’s company Harpo Productions, which maintains rights to the footage.
People familiar with the matter who were not authorized to speak publicly said there were several reasons the special landed at CBS. It helped that CBS has maintained a good relationship with Winfrey more than a decade after a unit of the company, now part of ViacomCBS, distributed her daytime talk show. Winfrey used to contribute segments to CBS’ “60 Minutes” and one of her best friends is Gayle King, a powerhouse in her own right for “CBS This Morning.”
CBS’ special with the Sussexes was the highest-rated gender reveal party ever (it’s a girl!) and a reminder that Winfrey remains the interview queen.
Separately, Prince Harry appeared this month with a friend and fellow Brit — James Corden, host of CBS’ “The Late Late Show” — where the two tried to drink tea atop a double-decker bus tooling around Beverly Hills.
CBS paid about $8 million for the right to air the interview, according to two people familiar with the matter. It will stream on CBS.com for the next 30 days, and CBS also has the right to replay the interview a second time on television.
Winfrey, Meghan and Prince Harry agreed that the interview should air on broadcast TV so that millions of viewers could watch for free, knowledgeable people said. The decision-makers didn’t want the program to run on a subscription-only streaming service.
Winfrey also recognized that, without the platform of broadcast television, it would be nearly impossible to get millions of people to watch on a single night — making the interview a more communal experience, one of the knowledgeable people said.
The program also succeeded due to Winfrey’s mastery of television.
After working at a Nashville TV station while in college, Winfrey joined a Baltimore TV station 45 years ago and ultimately became the queen of daytime TV with “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which propelled her into becoming one of the world’s richest celebrities. In 2011, she launched a cable network with Discovery — OWN — but sold her majority stake back to the programming giant in 2017.
Winfrey exhibited her interview skills and looked genuinely startled when Meghan said that before their child Archie was born in 2019, there were “concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be” among the royal family.
The airing of Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah lands nearly one year after the couple made the U.S. their home.
Winfrey’s eyes widened and she asked: “What? Who is having that conversation with you? ... Hold up there.”
She also gently pushed back when Prince Harry said he felt trapped as part of the royal family. “Please explain how you, Prince Harry — raised in a palace and life of privilege, literally a prince — how you were trapped,” Winfrey asked.
While some media critics accused Winfrey of going too easy on the couple and not pressing for answers on the most sensitive points, many praised her interview.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan on Monday called Winfrey the “greatest celebrity interviewer of all time.”
And it appears that Winfrey was tenacious in trying to land her scoop.
On “CBS This Morning,” Winfrey acknowledged that she first asked for the interview in 2018 soon after the royal wedding. Winfrey was among the celebrities, including Serena Williams and Elton John, who attended the couple’s grand ceremony.
The interview also contained the signatures of Winfrey: her steely stare and even her unbridled glee when Harry announced that the baby they’re expecting this summer is a girl.
“People whose lives look charmed can feel trapped. And there is no substitute for 40-some years of interviewing people day in day out. Talent matters, journalistic skills matter and as always, love is freeing,” journalist and former California First Lady Maria Shriver tweeted Monday.
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