There was a second in Oprah Winfrey’s landmark interview with Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, that made the host’s jaw drop.
Meghan defined there had been “concerns” within the royal family in regards to the pores and skin colour of her and Harry’s first youngster, Archie, who was born in 2019. Oprah was visibly shocked. And the second captures every little thing that’s good and unhealthy in regards to the veteran media persona’s interview type.
You’ll be able to watch Oprah’s response right here:
To be clear, her method is precisely the appropriate one. She offers Meghan a number of area to course of her emotions, whereas Oprah conveys her personal empathy and shock at what Meghan has simply stated. Oprah principally reacts non-verbally, leaving Meghan room to say what she must say. And even when Meghan doesn’t in the end reveal the identify of the individual or individuals who anxious in regards to the potential darkness of Archie’s pores and skin, you may assume it’s somebody with numerous energy.
Within the twenty first century, Oprah Winfrey has turn into the newest in a really particular line of American TV personalities: the interviewer celebrities go to after they have some Shit to Say. Previous figures who’ve crammed this position have included Barbara Walters and Edward R. Murrow. Tom Cruise hopped on Oprah’s sofa (to show he was likable!) in 2005. Whitney Houston informed her every little thing in 2009. Lance Armstrong got here clear to her in 2013. And he or she arguably gave Barack Obama an enormous enhance within the 2008 Democratic main, after she interviewed him on her discuss present in 2006 and endorsed him earlier than he even introduced his candidacy; she would go on to interview him once more in 2011 when he was the sitting president, and she or he had one other high-profile interview with him simply final 12 months.
However what’s spectacular about Oprah, particularly, is the way in which she has maintained her go-to interviewer standing all through an period when the rise of streaming networks implies that broadcast tv has much less of a every day presence in American life. The draw of the Meghan and Harry interview was the royals, for positive, however Oprah’s presence added each legitimacy and the sense that one thing large would occur.
That high quality is invaluable to folks like Meghan and Harry, who wish to guarantee their message reaches the widest potential viewers. It’s additionally invaluable to a community like CBS, which aired the interview throughout primetime on Sunday evening and which nonetheless has a a lot bigger potential attain than even the most important streaming companies. (Netflix has just below 74 million American subscribers; CBS is freely obtainable to all US residents, no less than in concept, even those that don’t have cable, as a result of you may watch it with an antenna over publicly owned airwaves.)
Oprah excels at making a pleasant, heat ambiance wherein well-known folks really feel as if they will share their innermost ideas. It’s not clear how a lot the Meghan and Harry interview occurred roughly as offered on tv, or if it was edited to create a extra coherent development of its topics’ ideas. (Clearly, all interviews are edited to take away filler and false begins.) However Oprah’s genius lies much less within the total scope of an interview (although she’s additionally good at that) and extra within the micromanagement of particular person moments. An interview topic can say one thing surprising, and Oprah is expert at guiding the alternate in order that it performs out to its fullest impact, whereas giving the topic area to course of their ideas and determine whether or not they wish to share extra.
A lot of that certainly stems from her a few years as a chat present host. The Oprah Winfrey Present aired virtually each weekday between 1986 and 2011, a 25-year run that noticed Oprah turn into essentially the most profitable discuss present host of her period. Internet hosting a every day discuss present builds up a ability set that entails listening simply as a lot because it does asking questions, and it entails discovering a approach to hear that conveys empathy to each the interview topic and the viewers at massive.
There’s nobody proper approach to be an efficient listener on digital camera. David Letterman, who’s simply as concerned about making his personal jokes as he’s in what his interview topic is saying, can be an ideal interviewer; his method depends on these jokes, which operate as a stress launch valve and provides the topic area to course of their ideas and determine whether or not they wish to share extra. However Oprah’s interview type has far more in widespread with Walters’s and Murrow’s. All three ask probing, considerate questions that then go away their topics room to really feel issues and converse extra brazenly about what they’ve skilled. All three are masterfully affected person and excellent at making the sort of considering face that alerts to viewers at house that it’s time to concentrate.
Notably, all three of the interviewers I’ve talked about — and others who match this normal type, like journalists Mike Wallace and Katie Couric and late-night host Craig Ferguson — come from very totally different TV traditions. Murrow was a hard-nosed newsman who might pivot nimbly to interviewing the wealthy and well-known, earlier than switching again to grilling the highly effective, whereas Walters excelled at celeb interviews particularly. Oprah’s discuss present helped her develop the ability of speaking to common folks, from quite a lot of backgrounds, which she has since parlayed into speaking to celebrities as in the event that they had been simply regular people.
However I feel the clip of Meghan and Oprah additionally exhibits the core flaw on this extra affected person method: It’s actually depending on how forthcoming the topic is. Meghan needs to inform a tough, painful, horrible story, and Oprah is able to let her do exactly that. As a result of Meghan’s story is so compelling, Oprah is ready to simply get out of the way in which and let the story be the story.
In conditions the place a heavier contact is required, this method weakens. Oprah is able to harder-edged questioning, as when she pushed back against James Frey, whose supposed memoir A Million Little Items turned out to be partially fictional, in 2006. But the rationale she was pushing again in opposition to Frey was that she’d chosen his ebook for her ebook membership and had him on the present months earlier to have fun his work with out a lot in the way in which of questioning, though there have been loads of causes to query Frey’s story. (It wasn’t on Oprah to uncover Frey’s fabrications and falsehoods — that will be extra the accountability of his writer — however the debacle exhibits the bounds of taking an interview topic at face worth.)
That is all to say that celebrities generally flip to Oprah as a result of her interview type begins from a degree of credulity because the default. If that credulity is shaken, she’s going to push a well-known topic to additional clarify themselves. However that credulity additionally requires giving interview topics the good thing about the doubt in methods that may backfire. In spite of everything, Oprah’s program elevated the nationwide prominence of the controversial Dr. Oz, and her firm co-produces his discuss present.
Oprah’s chumminess together with her topics additionally creates a situation the place, say, she can be working with Harry to provide a docuseries about mental illness for AppleTV+. She additionally attended Meghan and Harry’s marriage ceremony as a visitor. Oprah introduced up each of those potential conflicts of curiosity in passing throughout the interview, however such relationships would possibly rouse skepticism in viewers who’re in search of impartiality.
And but Oprah’s interviews are virtually all the time watchable TV, and generally, they break large information, as occurred throughout her dialog with Meghan and Harry, which has created a PR nightmare for the British crown. I don’t know that I might need Oprah urgent President Joe Biden on his coverage proposals, however she’s the appropriate alternative for a second when a really well-known individual has a really tough story to inform. And extra importantly, her standing, her ability, and her lengthy historical past of being nice on tv made her perhaps the one individual on this planet who might have risen to Meghan and Harry’s problem.