Oprah Winfrey this week pulled off a feat rarely seen in the entertainment business during the streaming era: persuading tens of millions of people to watch a programme live on television.
The media mogul’s dramatic interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry attracted an average of 17.1m viewers in the US, the largest primetime audience for any entertainment special in more than a year.
Although it was one of the most-watched news interviews of recent years, the audience still fell far short of the stellar viewership figures recorded three decades ago. When Winfrey interviewed Michael Jackson in 1993, the sit-down with the late pop star lured some 62m viewers, making it the most-watched television interview in history.
In a media landscape now dominated by Netflix and YouTube, it also poses a broader question about why the interview was not streamed on one of the biggest platforms, but instead aired via broadcast television on CBS.
Winfrey holds a multiyear production partnership with Apple to make programming for its Apple TV Plus streaming service. Even Prince Harry and Markle have leapt into streaming, landing a reported $100m deal with Netflix and a multimillion dollar agreement with Spotify to produce shows and podcasts.
Yet, Winfrey had always planned to distribute the interview on broadcast television and has not discussed licensing it for streaming on Apple or Netflix, despite these ties with the two technology companies, said people familiar with the matter. Netflix and Apple declined to comment.
Even as the industry races towards streaming, television still commands millions of viewers, and hefty advertising fees, remaining the dominant home to entertainment that people still want to watch live: sports and news.
“Broadcast is still broadcast. There’s a reason why sports leagues continue to do these big deals with broadcast [television],” said a senior executive at a large television group. “If you want to get the widest audience, it still delivers.”
Harpo, Winfrey’s production company, has not elaborated on why it went with a traditional network. It had pitched the programme to media companies as a 90-minute special before Winfrey had conducted the interview.
She ultimately chose CBS, which she has a long-term relationship with; the network aired her long-running daytime talk show that ended in 2011, and Winfrey is close friends with CBS News host Gayle King.
CBS initially signed on for a 90-minute show, but Harpo later asked to extend it to two hours because of the substantive material during the interview, said people familiar with the discussions.
Winfrey’s decision was good news for ViacomCBS, which paid more than $7m for the licensing rights to the interview, according to people familiar with the deal. ViacomCBS shares climbed more than 12 per cent on Monday.
As streaming platforms increase their dominance, the event also marked a brief return to the zeitgeist for broadcast television, a medium which for decades was the centre of American culture, regularly drawing tens of millions of viewers to their couches to watch shows such as Seinfeld.
It was a throwback to a previous era when big-name interviews were a staple for US broadcasters, who would compete fiercely to score the buzziest figures of the moment. More than 48m viewers tuned in for Barbara Walters’ interview with Monica Lewinsky in 1999, in which the former White House intern broke her silence about her affair with President Bill Clinton.
“The monoculture moment [of the Winfrey interview] was very 1990s,” said one media executive. “Oprah, the royals, CBS, it all felt very vintage”.
But some analysts dismissed the success of the programme as a one-off, with traditional television in long-term decline. As audiences have scattered across an expanding choice of streaming platforms, watching their favourite shows days or weeks after they air, these big event-style television moments have dwindled in frequency.
“I don’t think there are any major 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 pronounced streaming the future of their business, as they seek to compete with Netflix and funnel their best shows and movies on to streaming platforms.
Some would-be viewers complained on social media that the interview was not available to watch on Paramount Plus, the streaming service ViacomCBS launched last week.
But ViacomCBS did not have a choice: Harpo did not offer it the streaming rights to the programme, according to people familiar with the matter.
The contract only allowed ViacomCBS to air the interview on broadcast television or through advertising-supported video on-demand. As a result, US viewers seeking to watch the interview after it aired live could only do so through CBS.com. The programme was available on Paramount Plus only during the live broadcast — potentially leaving the door open for streaming rights to be sold elsewhere.
This hampered ViacomCBS from capitalising on the moment to boost sign-ups to Paramount Plus, its high-stakes push into streaming, as it looks 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”.
“At the time during Covid, the suggestion by a friend was ‘what about streamers?’”, he said during the interview. “I just needed enough money to pay for security to keep my family safe.”
Additional reporting by Patrick McGee