Like so many of her viewers I grew up watching The Oprah Winfrey Show on afternoon television. But as I watched Oprah wrap up the 25th season of her daytime talk show, I was flooded with memories of when I first met the queen of daytime talk 25 years ago.
Yes, I actually met Oprah Winfrey. Before she became a billionaire, before the “Oprah Effect”, and before she founded OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network.
I was a budding television producer just out of college and working at my first television job, Essence, The Television Show, as a researcher. In the 1980’s, Essence, the black women’s magazine had a syndicated magazine television show that aired on Sunday mornings in New York. Hosted by Susan L. Taylor and journalist Felipe Luciano the show featured a Who’s Who of the African American entertainment, news, and political community. Putting prominent black people and issues on television was our focus and we covered them all. Lena Horne, Stevie Wonder and Oprah Winfrey the first African American talk show host. We (African Americans) were beyond thrilled to have a black woman, someone who looked like many of us, hosting her own syndicated talk show and holding her own in the ratings against Chicago’s king Phil Donahue. It was pretty amazing.
In 1986, the year “The Oprah Winfrey Show” went into syndication, Essence landed a” big get”, an interview with Oprah at NATPE, the premier television conference. A convention where television muckety mucks peddle their newest programs and brightest stars. But the bigger news for me was that I was going to New Orleans with the show. OMG, I was young, working in television and traveling for my job…. I was on my way to see Oprah Winfrey!
The day of the interview was a blur of excitement. Our crew set up at a designated corner of the NATPE floor, lights were set, camera and audio checked, double checked and triple checked. I was ready to do what was needed… but I wasn’t really needed at the moment. So, I watched the show producer Lynn carefully prep Susan for the interview. All of a sudden, Oprah was right beside us, standing with a few people and ready for her interview. I remember her being very friendly and down to earth. She said hello to the crew, including me. Susan and Oprah chatted like old friends and before we knew it the time was up and the interview was over. But before Oprah departed, someone in our group asked her to take a group photo and she said yes. It was during that split second photo op that I leaned over and told Oprah I recently graduated college and asked her for any advice. She looked at me, smiled and said… “You have to love what you do” and then Oprah was gone. Ushered away by her small group of handlers.
I eventually became a producer and have worked in television my entire career. I’ve often thought of Oprah’s advice… “You have to love what you do.” I was lucky I found my professional passion at a very young age and of course her advice was right on target and has served me well and often. Viewers can’t imagine how much stress and hard work goes into producing television. I’ve been a daytime talk show and morning news show producer and a tape and live studio producer. Each brings it’s own set of anxiety and frustration. And through it all, Oprah’s advice “You have to love what you do” was in the back of my mind at the most interesting times of my television life. Like the time:
– During my years producing for daytime talk, I’d spent days and nights booking a husband, wife, mistress and the secret surprise baby for a show. Then one by one they canceled the afternoon before so I spent the entire night trying to find another story for the next day’s show. You try booking guests at midnight!
-Or when my “A” story guests who won’t shut up on the phone and couldn’t wait to tell their story on TV, gets stage fright the day of our taping and answered our host’s questions with one word answers. Not good for an hour talk show !! It was the longest hour of my life!
–How about this, I set up an amazing story over the phone to tape with my camera crew down south. Spent days talking to my guest and loved him. When I pulled up to his garage days later for the interview, I was surprised to find he had confederate flags hanging everywhere. He was just as surprised to see me. The crew pulled me to the side and asked me if I was OK. Yup, got the story done and I never spoke to that guest again.
-How about when my expert shows up for a live morning show holiday segment and is drunk out of her mind. She tells me that she had a toothache and only rubbed a little alcohol on her gums to feel better. REALLY?!!
-Or best of all, my celebrity guest wants to be left alone the morning of the live show. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone, no one, not even me the producer who has to review the finer points of his segment interview!
I think I’ve lived through every imaginable television scenario and ones you couldn’t imagine. My friends tell me I should write a book! But even with the long days and nights, tight deadlines, insults and crazy mishaps I pushed thru and 25 years kind of flew by.
I guess that’s what happens when you love what you do.
It’s been 25 years and I’ve never spoken to or been face to face with Oprah again. But, I watched her almost daily on her talk show (perks of the jobs, keeping an eye on the competition so the television is on 24/7). Now, Oprah’s made a lot more money and gotten a lot more fame than I did at this television game. As she prepares for the next chapter of her life at OWN, I’m also working on my second act too.
No complaints, I’m happy with my journey. Unlike my early years, I’m a lot wiser, better seasoned and know when to say “no” when I’ve had enough. As a veteran television producer filled with hard-core experience and lots of impressive credentials behind me, I’m looking for the next great career adventure.
Maybe I’ll meet Oprah Winfrey again one day, and you bet I’m going to tell her that I followed her advice all those years ago. We’ll laugh, I’ll smile and then ask her to throw some more advice my way. But, only after I ask her to take another photo of course!
But what about you? What’s the advice or mantra that’s gotten you through your career or life? What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from Oprah? And what do you know now that you wished you’d known at the start of your career?
Social Media Consultant Deborah “Debbie” Mitchell is based in New York City. She’s worked as a producer for network news having spent 10 years at CBS News’ The Early Show and 11 years with Geraldo’s daytime talk show as well as many other TV projects. Presently, Debbie is busy building social media brands and looking for her next career adventure. To find out more follow Debbie on Twitter or email @ DeborahJayMitchell@gmail.com