Would you believe a new TV special on Harry and Meghan is on its way? Of course you would. In a season of jaw-dropping drama surrounding Britain’s royal family — the current cycle began with the highly unflattering portrayal of Prince Charles in Series 4 of The Crown — perhaps the least unexpected thing is that someone in television is making money off the legacy of poor Lady Diana Spencer.
This time it’s the NINO (network in name only) called The CW, the special is called Harry & Meghan’s American Dream, and it’s airing March 25. Fortuitously, this special was originally planned for March 30 but was bumped up after COVID issues at other CW shows forced a last-minute schedule shuffle. So it’s airing as flaming debris is still falling out of the sky from Oprah Winfrey’s explosive sitdown with the Duchess of Sussex and her spouse.
When it comes to royal squabbles, too much time is spent talking to gossip-mongers, in my opinion, and not enough time talking to media-industry experts. For while the Meghan and Harry story is a fascinating kerfuffle, and one with theoretical implications for the institution that (theoretically) holds up the United Kingdom, more importantly it is a story about how everyone’s fates and fortunes these days seem to revolve around television deals.
After all, it was only after Prince Charles had informed Diana’s second child (you sort of forget the two men are related) that Buckingham was ending Harry and Meghan’s security detail that the couple signed their “megawatt deal” with Netflix. Though financial terms weren’t disclosed, the New York Times pegged it at $100 million. That’s far more than the Obamas got in their Netflix deal, but then, the Obamas don’t have to pay for their security detail.
As with last year’s CW special, Harry & Meghan: A Royal Rebellion, this one is airing around the world in partnership with People magazine. Speaking of institutions that are in decline, I realized while writing this story that I hadn’t uttered the words “People magazine” in years. That rag used to have one of the highest circulations of anything in print. It was a highlight of waiting for the dentist. But today… magazines? What are those? In its heyday, People was the cash-flow-generating dynamo of the Time-Life empire on Sixth Avenue. Today it’s owned by Meredith, an Iowa-based corporation whose holdings include Kansas City’s CBS affiliate and Better Homes and Gardens. (To Meredith’s credit, it just hired a woman to run Entertainment Weekly, something the magazine’s previous owners could never be bothered to do.)
Though the CW hasn’t shared screeners of Harry & Meghan’s American Dream, it’s not hard to figure out that their American dream consists of: control over their narrative and a less hectic travel schedule. Living in Santa Barbara — the Dallas oil suburbs of Hollywood, with easy proximity to studios and talent — they’ll likely make up for their lack of producing experience the way Barack and Michelle did, by bankrolling promising prestige works mid-project and developing a vanity piece or two of their own. Their new neighbor, Oprah, could be helpful as well.
Speaking of that other royal, the Queen of Talk was the clear winner among reviewers of her CBS special. Even grizzled hard-news journalists couldn’t help but lavish praise on Oprah’s unparalleled skill at extracting damning revelations from her subjects. But there were other winners and losers as well.
Gayle King. I’ve already noted the remarkable pivot at CBS News under Susan Zirinsky, and no one has benefited more from this than Oprah’s bestie (who, fun fact, cut her teeth 40 years ago at the aforementioned CBS affiliate in KC). She has brought attention and personality to a morning franchise that hasn’t had much of either since Captain Kangaroo signed off. And now that Oprah is a CBS contributor, she is happy to pass any other Harry and Meghan scuttlebutt on to King. This has led so-called “palace watchers” to grumble about how two Black American women are currently the most reliable sources of information on Britain’s royal family.
James Corden. After a floptastic turn in Cats, and with his “Carpool Karaoke” decidedly long in the tooth, there was some question about Corden’s future at CBS, a network that is part of ViacomCBS, which has lots of late-night talent in its stable. But his interview with Harry, a warmup to the Oprah broadcast, showed the value of having a Brit handy. Corden, always one for a motor stunt, pulled up to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s house and coaxed the real prince atop a double-decker tour bus in Los Angeles. That’s where Harry dropped the month's first knowledge bomb, blaming a “toxic” tabloid culture for the couple’s decision to flee England.
Netflix. Able to beam anything across the entire British Commonwealth with the flick of a switch, the global streamer was a natural place for Harry and Meghan to do business. And the Oprah interview led to a resurgence of interest in The Crown’s fourth series, further eroding whatever goodwill Harry’s dad had built up in the years following Diana’s death. Peter Morgan, The Crown’s creator, will do as he pleases in Series 5 and 6, but the publicity value of having both him and the royals on the payroll could well be worth whatever Netflix is paying them.
The CW. I have no idea where the NINO is heading, but Superman & Lois notwithstanding, it would seem to be hanging on in part thanks to imported British content like the royals and Bulletproof. With its parent company launching Paramount+, and CBS a corporate sister, it’s entirely possible the CW could be repositioned as a window to the world, or at least across the pond. CBS already airs Champions League football, which features four of England’s top Premier League clubs and which, speaking as a fan, I never dreamed would have a following in the U.S.
Sharon Osbourne. One of American TV’s least pleasant personalities, Osbourne found herself apparently out of a job at CBS after defending Piers Morgan on The Talk. As bad as that moment was (Osbourne claimed she’d been ambushed on-air), it served as the perfect setup for journalist Yashar Ali to reveal horrible things Osbourne had once said about her colleagues Sarah Gilbert and Julie Chen.
Piers Morgan. The former British tabloid editor and Celebrity Apprentice winner, whose graceless tweet about Larry King tells you all you need to know about Piers Morgan, stormed off ITV’s Good Morning Britain after getting into it with the show’s “weather presenter,” Alex Beresford. The great Mary McNamara put it best: “The sight of a man who regularly describes his targets with words like ‘disgusting,’ ‘contemptible’ and ‘shameless’ running for cover in the face of mildly worded criticism was hilarious.”
Christopher Knight. The Brady Bunch star now markets furniture for discount retailers, and patio chairs with his name (but not his design) sold out shortly after Harry and Meghan sat in them with Oprah. Television!
Harry & Meghan’s American Dream airs on The CW Thursday March 25 at 8:00 PM ET.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.
TOPICS: Oprah with Meghan And Harry: A Primetime Special, The CW, Netflix, The Crown, The Late Late Show with James Corden, The Talk, Christopher Knight, Gayle King, James Corden, Meghan Markle, Piers Morgan, Sharon Osbourne