Harpo Inc. History

110 North Carpenter Street
Chicago, Illinois 60607

Telephone: (312) 633-0808
Fax: (312) 633-1976

Private Company
Incorporated:1986 as Harpo Productions, Inc.
Employees: 70
Sales:$314.5 million (2002 est.)
NAIC:512110 Motion Picture and Video Distribution

Company Perspectives:

Oprah Winfrey is most interested in concentrating on those topics that can actually help people improve their lives--shows 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.

Key Dates:

Oprah Winfrey begins her broadcast career as a reporter in Nashville.
Winfrey hosts a morning talk show in Chicago, which will become "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
"The Oprah Winfrey Show" earns three Emmy Awards.
Harpo Productions assumes ownership and all production responsibilities for "The Oprah Winfrey Show," making Oprah the first woman in history to own and produce her own talk show.
Oprah's Book Club is formed.
O magazine premieres.
Harpo signs an agreement to extend The Oprah Winfrey Show through the year 2011.

Company History:

Based in Chicago, and with additional offices in Los Angeles, Harpo Inc. 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, a magazine, 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.


Oprah Winfrey, the woman who would realize enormous success as the founder of entertainment giant Harpo Inc., had the most inauspicious of beginnings. The story of her success includes overcoming incredible odds with a singular determination that inspires her audience. Born in 1954 to teenage parents in Mississippi, Winfrey lived in terrible poverty on her grandmother's farm before moving to Milwaukee at age six to live with her mother. There, she was sexually abused by male relatives, and 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 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 guidance, Oprah quickly changed her life's direction.

Broadcasting in the Early 1970s

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 moved to Baltimore, 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, to 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.

Incorporating in the Mid-1980s

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 chief operating officer (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.

Harpo's first co-produced project was The Women of Brewster Place, a film released in 1989, in which Winfrey costarred with Paul Winfield, Robin Givens, and Moses Gunn, which recounted the lives of the female denizens of an inner-city brownstone, adapted from the Gloria Naylor novel. The film would later inspire a television miniseries of the same name. 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 addition to her roles as television host and CEO of a production company, Winfrey found time for social causes and philanthropy. Committed to helping children of abuse, 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, President Clinton signed into law the Oprah Bill.

During this time, Winfrey had formed a new division called Harpo Films. In 1995 ABC and Harpo Films announced a three-year agreement under which Harpo would produce six made-for-television movies for the network under the "Oprah Winfrey Presents" banner, extending the relationship between ABC and Harpo, which had already produced several miniseries, movies, and primetime specials for the network. 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 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, which was slated for airing in 2005.

In 1991, after eight years in syndication, Winfrey was at a crossroads both personally and professionally and began to think about retirement from the talk show industry, which had become characterized by scandal and theatrics. Instead, however, she opted to alter the focus of her show, moving from popular controversies to 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 distributor 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. 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.

By that time, 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 the Forbes list of the highest paid entertainers in the United States, bumping Bill Cosby out of the spot. In September 1996, Winfrey announced the formation of Oprah's Book Club, an on-air reading club, created with the idea of inspiring more Americans to read. 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 encouraging her audience to do charitable work and make charitable financial contributions. 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 for Humanity to build homes for the poor.

Total revenues at Harpo for 1997 reached $150 million, a 7.1 percent increase 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."

The Late 1990s and Beyond

The late 1990s brought some challenges to Winfrey and her company. A group of Texas cattle owners filed a lawsuit against her in 1998 alleging libel due to comments she made on her show about Mad Cow Disease. The trial was watched closely by First Amendment rights advocates worldwide, and the jury eventually found Winfrey innocent. While the lawsuit was ongoing, Winfrey took over a local theater in Amarillo, Texas, turning it into an impromptu set for her show.

In October 1998 oprah.com, an online web site co-developed by ABC Internet Group and Harpo Productions, was launched, allowing more input from Winfrey's huge following of fans. Two months later, Winfrey announced the creation of Oxygen Media, a new cable channel targeted at women. Joining the venture were big hitters in the entertainment world, including Geraldine Laybourne, Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner, and Caryn Mandabach. Other backers included America Online and ABC. By the end of the 20th century, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" claimed a viewership of some 20 million throughout the world.

In April 2000, Harpo joined forces with the Hearst Corporation to create the premiere issue of O, The Oprah Magazine--Oprah's lifestyle magazine for women. A 500,000-circulation rate base was planned for the bimonthly magazine, which went to a monthly issue later that year. Harpo and Hearst promoted the magazine as a personal growth guide for women ages 18 to 49. Oprah planned to appear on the cover of each issue, and begin and end each issue with a first and last word, exhorting readers to use their lives to "make a difference in somebody else's." The magazine also included departments and columns on finance, personal growth, "Phenomenal Women," dreaming big, and dream jobs. After the first issue debuted, editor in chief Ellen Kune resigned but cited family demands and denied any tension between herself and Oprah. Advertisers lined up quickly to secure ad space in the new magazine, proving the influence of the Oprah brand, characterized as intelligent, empathic, spiritual, and courageous.

By 2004, Oprah's talk show, boasting 23 million viewers, had been the top-rated daytime show nationwide for 17 years. As the show's contract with King World came to an end, Oprah suggested that she might leave the show. However, she eventually renewed the contract through the 2010-11 television season, planning to tape 140 episodes per year, with a final year consisting of 130 shows and celebrating the program's 25th anniversary. Oprah said that the renewed contract would give her company a chance to create and develop more projects and shows, as it had the very successful "Dr. Phil" show, starring psychologist and advice guru Dr. Phil McGraw.

Oprah, and Harpo Inc., continued to accumulate accolades from the business world. Harpo was ranked among Black Enterprise's "Industrial Service 100," garnering notice as the largest business with majority African-American ownership. Oprah was also the first to receive the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, presented at the 2002 Emmy Award show. In 2004, Oprah was awarded "Favorite Talk Show Host" at the 30th Annual People's Choice Awards, reflecting the enduring popularity of her show.

Principal Subsidiaries: Harpo Films, Inc.; Harpo Productions, Inc.; Harpo Video, Inc.

Principal Competitors: Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc.; Lifetime Entertainment Services.

Further Reading:

  • Albiniak, Paige, "Oprah Wears Its Age Well," Broadcast & Cable, January 20, 2003, p. 47.
  • Borden, Jeff, "A Secret Not Even Oprah Will Air: Declining Ratings," Crain's Chicago Business, August 14, 1995, p. 1.
  • ------, "A West Side Story: Oprah As Producer," Crain's Chicago Business, March 26, 1990, p. 19.
  • ------, "When Money Can't Cut It: Next on 'Oprah'!," Crain's Chicago Business, January 11, 1993, p. 9.
  • Coe, Steve, "Winfrey Signs Film Deal with Disney," Broadcasting & Cable, November 6, 1995, p. 58.
  • Curry, Sheree R., "Advertisers Line Up for Oprah Book," Advertising Age, October 25, 1999, p. S6.
  • Freeman, Michael, "Oprah Winfrey's," MEDIAWEEK, March 21, 1994, p. 16.
  • "Harpo Scores First Non-Oprah TV Deal," Crain's Chicago Business, July 2, 1990, p. 1.
  • "King World Agrees to Pay $150 Million in 'Oprah' Deal," Wall Street Journal, September 25, 1998, p. B7.
  • Lloyd, Fonda Marie, "Footprints in Time: 25 People Who've Blazed an Indelible Trail of Black Business Progress Since 1970," Black Enterprise, August 1995, p. 108.
  • McClellan, Steve, "Upheaval at Harpo?," Broadcasting & Cable, October 31, 1994, p. 14.
  • Melcher, Richard, "Next on Oprah: Burned-Out Talk-Show Hosts?" Business Week, October 2, 1995, p. 64.
  • Melcher, Richard, and Kelley Holland, "What Women Really Want?" Business Week, December 7, 1998, p. 50.
  • Mullman, Jeremy, "Oprah Winfrey, 50, Chairman, Harpo Inc.," Crain's Chicago Business, June 7, 2004, p. W84.
  • Nathan, Paul, "The Right Backup," Publishers Weekly, September 25, 1995, p. 16.
  • Noglows, Paul, "Oprah: The Year of Living Dangerously," Working Woman, May 1994, p. 52.
  • "Oprah, ABC Extend Pact," Broadcasting & Cable, October 23, 1995, p. 24.
  • "Oprah Magazine Editor Resigns," Mediaweek, June 5, 2000, p. 5.
  • "Oprah Reups with King World," Broadcasting, August 8, 1988, p. 37.
  • "Oprah: The Winner Who's Taking It All," Broadcasting, March 27, 1989, p. 35.
  • "'Oprah' Staying at King World," New York Times, September 25, 1998, p. C17.
  • "Oprah Winfrey Renews Contract," TelevisionWeek, August 9, 2004, p. 4.
  • "Oxygen Media," Wall Street Journal, November 25, 1998, p. B12.
  • Schlosser, Joe, "King World Locks in Oprah," Broadcasting & Cable, September 28, 1998, p. 6.
  • Sellers, Patricia, "The Business of Being Oprah," Fortune, April 2002.
  • Shahoda, Susan, "Oprah Winfrey Buys Historic Chicago Film & Television Complex," Back Stage, September 30, 1988, p. 4.
  • "Spiritual Awakening," Mediaweek, April 3, 2000, p. 74.
  • Winters, Rebecca, "A Daytime Diva in the Jury Box," Time, August 30, 2004, p. 71.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 66. St. James Press, 2004.