Commentary

What I Learned from Being on Oprah’s Talk Show

The week’s spotlight on all things Oprah reminded me of the time I was on her show as a novice author back when and what I learned about the worlds of entertainment and hard work.

At the time I had almost no experience doing national TV, let alone the highest-rated show of all. The publishers of my first book, “The Litigation Explosion,” had sent galleys to her show way in advance (as was standard practice given the show’s power and reach). Her producers picked up on it right away, pre-interviewing me on the phone at length and then spending weeks developing a segment based on it, all before my book’s publication date and before any reviews had hit other than the trade reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus.

Finally they called me to say: We’re ready to shoot in a couple of days, here’s your flight to Chicago. At that point I realized I had never actually sat down to watch the show and only one episode was airing before I had to be there. The theme of the show that day was blind dates between star athletes and gorgeous supermodels separated from each other by a curtain. I wondered how I was going to fit the history of civil procedure into that format.

The week’s spotlight on all things Oprah reminded me of the time I was on her show as a novice author back when and what I learned about the worlds of entertainment and hard work.

The limo that picked me up at my Chicago hotel delivered me to the studio at exactly the same moment as a second vehicle delivered Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who was there as the balance, to provide the argument that lawsuits were a wonderful thing and America needed more of them.

Of course I recognized him and introduced myself. They whisked us to the same green room (pre-show waiting room for guests) and at almost the same moment we both said — “Do they really want to leave us together?” Sure enough, a producer arrived a moment later to say Mr. Dershowitz had been brought to the wrong place and would he please come with her. As I later discovered was the practice at some other shows when there was a debate on, they gathered the guests on each side in separate green rooms so that we did not waste good conversational firepower that should be saved for live, or worse yet, accidentally come to like each other and pull our punches on camera as a result.

The segment as a whole featured, besides me and Dershowitz, a couple of people who had been dragged through bad or fraudulent lawsuits, which of course tended to build up my side of the debate as the critic of litigiousness. Overall, I thought the show was extremely fair to my point of view, maybe even sympathetic to it.

Onstage, Oprah was the best live interviewer I’ve ever had. Her secret, so far as I can tell, was part homework and part manner of delivery. From her well-chosen questions to me, it was impossible to tell where her knowledge of the topic left off. The problem of excessive litigation in America might have been one she had been studying deeply her whole life long, or she might have been extremely well briefed beforehand by her producers (who, as I say, had put a huge amount of effort into this one segment). You couldn’t tell. So far I could discern one way or the other, she knew my subject cold.

The other thing was her manner of asking the questions. She had total command of the room — the most total I’ve ever seen. When she started asking me questions, she focused on me with 100 percent attention. And her manner seemed to convey enthralled urgency: “Your answer to my question will be the most interesting thing I have ever heard in my entire life, but I have to go to the bathroom terribly, so please get it out quick.” This worked like magic at getting the best performances out of me, Dershowitz, and the other guests.

In later years, I got used to doing television, both news and opinion shows. But at the end, I thought Oprah’s show on my subject came out fairer and more informative, as well as much livelier, than most of those that followed, certainly most of the ones on TV. And I remember thinking at the time that if my experience was anything like typical, she deserves every bit of the success she’s had.

Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a Frederick County resident.