Oprah interview shows TV can still make a splash in the streaming age

Oprah Winfrey this week achieved a feat rarely seen in the entertainment industry in the streaming age: persuading millions of people to watch a program live on television.

The media mogul dramatic interview starring Meghan Markle and Prince Harry has averaged 17.1 million viewers in the United States, the largest prime-time audience for any entertainment special for over a year.

Despite being one of the most-watched news interviews of recent years, viewership was still a far cry from the stellar audience numbers recorded three decades ago. When Winfrey interviewed Michael Jackson in 1993, the meeting with the pop star drew some 62 million viewers, making it the most-watched TV interview in history.

In a media landscape now dominated by Netflix and YouTube, this also poses a larger question as to why the interview was not shown on one of the bigger platforms, but instead aired via broadcast television. on CBS.

Winfrey has entered into a multi-year production partnership with Apple for the programming of its streaming service Apple TV Plus. Even Prince Harry and Markle took to streaming, winning $ 100million dealing with netflix and a million dollars agreement with Spotify to produce shows and podcasts.

Still, Winfrey had always planned to distribute the interview on television and did not discuss the license for streaming on Apple or Netflix, despite these ties to the two tech companies, people familiar with the matter said. . Netflix and Apple declined to comment.

Even as the industry rushes to streaming, television continues to receive millions of viewers and high advertising costs, remaining the dominant focus of the entertainment people always want to watch live: sports and news.

“The broadcast is still broadcast. There’s a reason sports leagues keep doing this big business with broadcasting. [television]Said a senior executive of a large television group. “If you want to get the biggest audience, it still performs well.”

Harpo, Winfrey’s production company, did not explain why she went for a traditional network. He had pitched the program to media companies as a 90-minute special before Winfrey conducted the interview.

She ultimately chose CBS, with whom she has a long-term relationship; the network aired their long-running daytime talk show which ended in 2011, and Winfrey is a close friend of CBS News host Gayle King.

CBS initially signed on for a 90-minute show, but Harpo later asked to extend it to two hours due to the substantive elements during the interview, people familiar with the discussions said.

Winfrey’s move was good news for ViacomCBS, which paid more than $ 7 million for the interview’s license fees, according to people familiar with the deal. Shares of ViacomCBS climbed more than 12% on Monday.

The interview made headlines around the world © Glyn Kirk / AFP / Getty

As streaming platforms increase their dominance, the event also marked a brief return to the zeitgeist for television, a medium that for decades has been the center of American culture, regularly drawing tens of millions. viewers on their sofas to watch shows such as Seinfeld.

It was a throwback to an earlier time when big name interviews were a staple for American broadcasters, who vied fiercely to score the hottest numbers around. Over 48 million viewers tuned in to Barbara Walters’ interview with Monica Lewinsky in 1999, in which the former White House intern broke the silence about her affair with President Bill Clinton.

“The moment of monoculture [of the Winfrey interview] was very 90, ”said a media official. “Oprah, the Royal Family, CBS, everything was very vintage.”

But some analysts dismissed the show’s success as a one-off event, with mainstream television in long-term decline. As audiences have dispersed across a growing choice of streaming platforms, watching their favorite shows days or weeks after they aired, these big event-type TV moments have dwindled in frequency.

“I don’t think there are any great takeaways, beyond a great short term [boost to] CBS, ”said Rich Greenfield, partner at Lightshed.

The world’s largest media companies, such as Disney, Warner, NBCUniversal and ViacomCBS, have announced the future of their streaming business, as they look to compete with Netflix and channel their best shows and movies to platforms. – streaming forms.

Some potential viewers have complained social media that the interview was not available to watch on Paramount Plus, the ViacomCBS streaming service launched last week.

But ViacomCBS had no choice: Harpo did not offer it the streaming rights to the program, according to people familiar with the matter.

The contract only allowed ViacomCBS to broadcast the interview on television or through ad-supported video-on-demand. As a result, US viewers wishing to watch the interview after it was broadcast live could only do so through CBS.com. The program was only available on Paramount Plus during the live broadcast – potentially leaving the door open for broadcast rights to sell elsewhere.

This prevented ViacomCBS from capitalizing on the moment to boost signups to Paramount Plus, its high stakes are pushing towards streaming, as it seeks to catch up with Netflix and Disney in an industry-wide battle for the future of entertainment.

For his part, Harry said during the interview that the couple’s streaming deals with Netflix and Spotify were “never part of the plan.”

“In the days of Covid, a friend’s suggestion was, ‘What about the banners? “He said during the interview. “I just needed enough money to pay for security and keep my family safe.”

Additional reporting by Patrick McGee

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