Since then, the rise of digital media and its infinite screen-time options has cut deeply into the might of the big broadcasters. As the viewing audience fractured, opportunities for must-see prime-time interviews became vanishingly rare. Even the biggest one-on-ones of recent years have lacked the drawing power of the specials from two decades ago and more. The audience of 17.1 million for Ms. Winfrey’s interview of Meghan and Harry matched the number of viewers who tuned in when Caitlyn Jenner revealed that she was transgender to Ms. Sawyer on a 2015 episode of ABC’s “20/20.”
The Sunday night special was unusual in that it was not overseen by a network news division. Ms. Winfrey’s company, Harpo Productions, produced it, and CBS paid at least $7 million to license the show, according to a person with knowledge of the arrangement. (The Wall Street Journal previously reported the figure.) The deal was also a gamble: It was taped after the network had bought the rights, according to two people with knowledge of how the show was made. During the interview, Ms. Winfrey said she had been trying to land the exclusive with the couple for about three years.
CBS emerged the winning bidder despite Ms. Winfrey’s rocky experience at “60 Minutes,” where she was a special contributor in 2017 and 2018. In a 2019 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Ms. Winfrey revealed that the show’s producers had criticized her delivery, saying she had “too much emotion” in her voice, even when she said her own name. (Ms. Winfrey has maintained a connection to the network through her good friend Gayle King, an anchor of “CBS This Morning,” and appeared on that show Monday.)
Further complicating CBS’s attempt to get the big get was the thicket of media companies surrounding Ms. Winfrey and the former royal couple. Ms. Winfrey has her own cable network, OWN, and is a major part of the streaming platform AppleTV+. Recent episodes of Apple’s “The Oprah Conversation” have featured her interviews of Barack Obama, Dolly Parton and Mariah Carey.
Meghan and Harry, for their part, signed a multiyear deal with Netflix last year to make documentaries and other shows. They also signed on to make podcasts for Spotify and released the first installment on Dec. 29. It included guest appearances by Elton John, Tyler Perry and other celebrities, as well as the first public utterance from their son, Archie.
The pact between CBS and Harpo Productions was largely focused on TV rights. The interview ran live on ViacomCBS’s newly rebranded streaming service, Paramount+ but at least for now will not be available on Paramount+ for on-demand viewing. Instead, the special will be available on CBS.com and the CBS app for 30 days, a CBS spokesman said.
Originally slotted for 90 minutes, it ended up a two-hour show. Before the broadcast, CBS released teaser clips, and British tabloids that have been unfriendly to Meghan shot back with anonymously sourced items on her apparent misdeeds.
The estimate of 17.1 million viewers will only grow after Nielsen tabulates some viewers who streamed the special, as well as out-of-home viewing.