Oprah with Meghan and Harry: A Primetime Special garnered unprecedented viewership for traditional broadcasting – a decaying form of television.
Prior to the pandemic, we rarely watched things live. But now, amid lockdown, viewers are reverting back to traditional TV viewing by the masses. Millions of viewers around the world tuned in to watch the Sussexes spill the tea on their time within "The Firm". The highly anticipated interview broke the internet, as many were outraged by Meghan and Harry's revelations. The potential dismantling of the monarchy is on the tip of everyone's tongues: major media outlets are questioning whether this is the beginning of the end of the monarchy as we know it.
That's the power of TV, and its revamped role as an agent of social justice and empowerment.
With our new distanced reality, we're all forging a new relationship with TV. We need emotive content that uplifts voices that have been systematically disenfranchised and ignored. We're calling for content that satisfies a new standard. We're also much more inclined to gather in living rooms or around laptop screens to watch content broadcasted in real time.
To say that the hour-and-twenty six-minute-long interview was a modern shot heard round the world would not be an overstatement. We already knew this interview was going to be explosive— hypothesising that Winfrey's interviewing prowess mixed with the popular couple's readiness to finally tell their story would create the perfect storm. And when it aired, it did that and then some.
The level of intent put into the creation and execution of this interview is remarkable. From the promotion to the aftermath, it was evident that the players behind the scenes recognised both the monumental nature of the interview and the power of broadcast viewership.
Winfrey is obviously a bigwig amongst those players. For nearly five decades, Winfrey has shone a much-needed light on some of the world's most jaw-dropping and underrepresented experiences. No one knows what stories need to be told and how to tell them better than Winfrey.
"She understood that CBS on Sunday nights, with a broad audience but also a certain amount of seriousness, was going to get a lot of people watching on television with also a lot of online engagement," says Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn of Winfrey's decision to go with the US broadcast network. Indeed, all eyes were on Winfrey when the interview premiered in both the US and UK, creating social-media buzz that's still going on days later.
The hype surrounding Oprah's interview with Meghan and Harry was perfectly cultivated. The teasers we've all seen leading up to the special's premiere generated "a week's worth of attention" without divulging how far Meghan and Harry would actually go. We were purposefully left in the dark, which helped make sure that everything about the interview inspired maximum shock value.
And shocked we still are. I'm still unpacking the multi-layered revelations Meghan and Harry shared with Winfrey. Watching as a Black woman, I felt emotionally connected to Markle. I obviously cannot imagine the depth of her pain, but so much of what she said and, most importantly, how it was depicted on screen, resonated with me.
The way she explained, for example, how Kate Middleton made her cry due to a disagreement leading up to her royal wedding to Prince Harry, contrary to reports at the time that the reverse happened, was a standout moment. The camera lingered on Markle's face, poised but etched with emotional battle scars, and I saw something recognisable. I saw pain that I intimately understood.
The interview's format played a significant role in establishing my emotional connection to Markle. Oprah with Meghan and Harry really underscored "the power of the long-format interview, which is almost totally gone from TV nowadays," The Hollywood Reporter's Alex Weprin noted.
The interview was shot in an intimate setting, with a calm California backdrop, and captured a conversation that felt like a release. There was room to ruminate on the weight of what was being said. Many of us are still ruminating on the harrowing truth of what Meghan and Harry have been through the last few years.
At the end of the broadcast, Winfrey announced that additional clips would air on Monday's CBS This Morning. When talking to pal and fellow journalist Gayle King, Winfrey revealed that the interview was actually over three hours long, and there was more to share about the Sussex's journey. So the saga and intrigue continued. Dropping new bombshell clips the following day was a brilliant move by Winfrey's team. It made sure we keep having conversations about Meghan and Harry's truth.
The interview's impact thus far shows the extraordinary role that interview television can play in unraveling systemic racism and sexism that many institutions around the world function within.
As with Framing Britney Spears, the interview format allows for a deep dive into the topic at hand and is resonating with audiences more than ever before. Oprah with Meghan and Harry has opened up important questions about the purpose and presence of the monarchy in the modern world. The repercussions even pushed Piers Morgan to step away from Good Morning Britain.
Television is a unique medium. It has been a big part of the problem for decades, perpetuating many of the ideals that maintain a racist and sexist status quo. However, television also possesses the ability to encourage conversations about what institutional racism and sexism look like, and how they cause harm to the disenfranchised.
Markle said it best when she told Winfrey, "life is about storytelling." Interview television can tell stories that uncover the truth about experiences that are ignored or altered by the media. Effort and intent in finding and telling these stories must be paramount. Should broadcast networks commit to backing content like Oprah with Meghan and Harry: A Primetime Special, we will surely see the beginning of change.
Oprah with Meghan and Harry: A Primetime Special aired on CBS in the US and ITV in the UK. It is available to watch on the ITV Hub.
We would encourage anyone who identifies with the topics raised in this article to reach out. Organisations who can offer support include Samaritans on 116 123 (www.samaritans.org), Mind on 0300 123 3393 (www.mind.org.uk) or Black Minds Matter (www.blackmindsmatteruk.com). Readers in the US are encouraged to visit mentalhealth.gov.
Readers can also donate to the UK anti-discrimination group Stand Up To Racism, and the Unite Families & Friends Campaign, which supports those affected by deaths in police, prison and psychiatric custody. For more information on how you can support Black Lives Matter, please visit its official website or donate here.
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