How the Mighty has stumbled
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Mighty Oprah Winfrey has felt a lot less … mighty these days, hasn’t she?
On Friday, Oprah abruptly fired CAA and her agent Kevin Huvane, who is incredibly powerful in his own right. His past and present roster includes Meryl Streep, Penelope Cruz, Jennifer Aniston, Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves, Nicole Kidman, Clive Own, Sarah Jessica Parker, Uma Thurman, Renee Zellwegger, Julianne Moore and Ethan Hawke, and, as many of you know, his brother is publicist Stephen Huvane (Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Hathaway, and more). In 2009 he made it onto Lainey’s Freebie 5 for kicking Ebola out of a party. Kevin Huvane is Major.
Huvane helped broker Oprah’s OWN deal, arguably the riskiest and most defining moment of her career. In 2008, another agent helping with the deal, Michael Camacho, head of CAA’s Alternative TV department (as in unscripted/reality TV), decided to try to personally gain from the deal and lobbied for an executive position at OWN (unbeknownst to Kevin). Her team was understandably peeved, and in turn CAA fired Camucho. It’s like a bad Entourage storyline.
Putting the underhanded agent aside though, there’s been an obvious decline in the Oprah/CAA relationship since she launched OWN. By firing Kevin Huvane, Oprah is publicly proclaiming that no one is safe and no one and nothing is above her interests.
Massive power comes with massive ego, and egos don’t do well when they aren’t fed. A decision to sever her long-term working relationship with a well-connected agency (and she’s no doubt benefited from their influence when securing celebrity interviews) would not have come lightly. A few different things could have factored in to her decision: maybe she felt Huvane wasn’t paying enough attention to her (which, as her agent, is his job); maybe the trust level never fully recovered after the Camacho debacle; or maybe she felt like she’s outgrown CAA (although you don’t get much bigger than CAA, so where will she go, if anywhere?).
The bigger problem facing Oprah is the subtle lessening of her Midas Touch.
There’s been no glaring misstep, but there have been several bumps: Gayle leaving to work at CBS, layoffs, poor press. OWN was not a huge success out of the gate, which she freely admits. I was never an Oprah Winfrey Show convert, but I watch a few shows on OWN (Our America with Lisa Ling, Oprah’s Next Chapter, Oprah: Where Are They Now and Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes). There is some good programming there and it’s not TLC…but where is the big hit?
Part of the problem is that her talk show audience is less loyal than I think she expected. When she launched OWN, it stopped being about what they wanted to hear and it started being about what she wanted to say. Much like when she starred in Beloved (a bomb), Oprah’s flock will only follow her so far. And then really, what’s the point of them? If your flock isn’t following, aren’t they just a drain and an energy suck? It’s ironic that someone who has championed personal growth and evolution (however new age-y or contrived) has an audience that is largely unenthusiastic about HER growth and evolution.
It’s a loss of relatability as well. Oprah is no longer the talk show host struggling with her weight and sitting in your living room at 4 p.m. to chat and recommend books (and let’s be honest, she was never just that, but she was brilliant at making it seem as though she was). She’s powerful, she runs a network, she can move mountains. She’s not “with” her audience anymore, day in and day out. Instead, people can turn to a new celebrity eco-system to find people to relate to instead: reality stars.
All this can’t be blamed on her, of course. Starting a network is an incredibly massive task and she suffers from society’s expectation for immediate success. If it’s not overnight, it’s not celebrated.
How can she capture the hearts and minds of a society that wants to watch adults fight on camera (preferably while they guzzle wine)? Has she overestimated a demographic that, for years, has watched a group of women compete for the attention of a man so they can reach the holy grail (an engagement ring)? Oprah’s mistake may simply be that she’s misread the pop culture zeitgeist, and I don’t know if a new agent can fix that.