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Ohio University alumnus Chris Witherspoon reflects on NYC, interviewing Oprah Winfrey, and empowering media audiences

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Chris Witherspoon is an enormously accomplished entertainment journalist, having interviewed a host of high-profile celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, and Tom Hanks, just to name a few. Witherspoon regularly appears on programs such as MSNBC, TODAY, the Wendy Williams Show, and NBC’s Nightly News – lending his perspective on all things entertainment.

Most recently, Witherspoon has lent his expertise to the development and launch of PopViewers, a platform which not only allows every day users to rank and respond to the media they consume, but also gives viewers suggestions on what to watch next. However, PopViewers is more than just an algorithm. The platform was created in response to the predominantly white, male media critics whose perspectives often dictate the direction of our television and films. Witherspoon’s hope is that PopViewers will allow the everyday media consumer, instead of those critics, to influence the direction of media creation of all kinds.

Witherspoon took the time to speak to WOUB’s Emily Votaw about PopViewers, the 74th Primetime Emmy Awards, and how he got his start in media: as an intern at American morning television giant Good Morning America.

Listen to WOUB’s conversation with Chris Witherspoon, embedded above. Click on “play” in the Soundcloud widget. A condensed and edited transcript of the interview can be found below. 

A promotional headshot for Chris Witherspoon, featuring Chris in a black shirt against a purple background.
[facebook.com/chriswitherspoontv]
Emily Votaw: Thank you so much for your time today, Chris.

Chris Witherspoon: Thank you for having me!

Emily Votaw: I’m curious: when you got your internship with Good Morning America — which you obviously did very well with — how did you adapt to performing professionally on such a high level as a young person?

Chris Witherspoon: You know, Emily, TV and film raised me, right? So some of my favorite shows in movies took place in New York City. So what I did was I kind of transported myself mentally to these different characters in shows, in movies that I loved. So, when I was figuring out what I was gonna eat for dinner for three or four dollars — I’d think about how a lot of people in my favorite shows in the films were always broke in New York City and trying to figure it out. And I always say, when you live in New York City, it’s like having a relationship with a friend or a lover. I dated Manhattan every single day.

I used to go to work at 4 a.m. I had to be at the studio at 5:30 a.m. and I had an hour commute from deep in Brooklyn to Times Square. But when you get out, you just walk around and you look at so many things. And now that I’ve been in New York for 18 years, you can always spot someone who’s new. Cause they’re always looking around. That was me. I didn’t even look at anything in front of me! I was looking up, I was looking to the left up, and around. So, to answer your question, I really occupied my time just like being a tourist. And then my fellow interns, a lot of us were from what people would call “flyover states.” And we all together would just like get together and go figure out how we could eat dinner for $5 that night — and, you know, make it fun.

Emily Votaw: I really wanted to talk about PopViewers. Of course you are the founder and CEO, but you’re also an enormously accomplished entertainment journalist. So could you sort of share with our listeners and I how your experience as an entertainment journalist sort of led to the founding of PopViewers?

Chris Witherspoon: So, my entertainment journalism background goes back about 10 years. I’m still kind of new to doing TV, doing interviews. But I was working for a website called TheGrio. It was an African American news website. I had a boss. Her name is Joy Reid. She’s incredible. She’s now on TV. But I was at TheGrio back in 2012 and I was really kind of being underused there. I was writing pieces for the site — but I wanted to get on cameras so badly, but they just didn’t see that I was ready to do that, because I had no background as a journalist. I didn’t go to school here for journalism. I went for Communication, but that’s when Joy came in. She was hired to be our managing editor and she came from South Florida and she was like, “hold on, what’s your name? I’m your new boss. You should be doing our entertainment reporting. You should be interviewing the stars and going to junkets on red carpets.”

So, that’s what I did, I began doing a lot of that. Being in the space 10 years ago, covering film and covering TV for the African American community, what I began seeing was that our content, our shows and our movies were being overlooked by critics, but were outperforming expectations. So for example a couple of films from Will Packer or Tyler Perry — they were being made for less than 10 million and oftentimes making over a hundred million dollars. And I saw that there were these micro-conversations that were happening on social media, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, that were really leading to macro effects at the box office. And also the newsroom. I began being called on by MSNBC’s TODAY show to cover these films that were making a lot of huge waves. A few years later, I began working for CNN and #OscarsSoWhite happened. I really owned that for MSNBC and for CNN, doing the reporting around it. And what we began to see was that again, critics, the industry insiders in Hollywood, weren’t always getting it right when they’d talk about films and TV shows.

Being in the space 10 years ago, covering film and covering TV for the African American community, what I began seeing was that our content, our shows and our movies were being overlooked by critics, but were outperforming expectations. So for example a couple of films from Will Packer or Tyler Perry — they were being made for less than 10 million and oftentimes making over a hundred million dollars. And I saw that there were these micro-conversations that were happening on social media, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, that were really leading to macro effects at the box office. And also the newsroom. – Chris Witherspoon

I mean, I get to go to all these early screenings of shows and movies now, and there’s a lot of groupthink going on in those. I remember seeing an Amy Schumer film a few years ago, and I walked out and there were all these guys, all these straight white men who — and nothing’s wrong with straight white men, by the way, shout out to y’all — how you doing? — but they didn’t like this film that was written by a woman that was for women. The film got an awful score on Rotten Tomatoes and a lot of the major critic aggregates. And the reality is: there isn’t enough diversity among critics. There aren’t enough women. There aren’t enough minorities. So, for one, I wanted to create a platform that was going to help people discover what to watch next. There’s so much programming right now. If you open up your TV, if you have a smart TV, you gotta go to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, all the different platforms to see what they’re telling you to watch. There’re so many movies coming out now that are kind of slipping through the cracks and I wanted to create a platform that would help you discover new content. As you swipe on the Popviewers app, we’re learning more about you. We’re giving you recommendations across all platforms and then creating a community around the content. So you can find people who watch shows like you, and you can see what they’re watching, see their reviews, their reactions.

A screenshot from PopViewers, showing how the swiping function is used.
A screenshot from Popviewers showing how the swiping function is used by viewers to rate the media they watch. [popviewers.com]
The Emmys just happened, for example, and there are all these big winning shows that people still haven’t watched. You can come on Popviewers and see what real people have said about “Abbott Elementary” or “Hacks” or any of the big winners, and then decide to watch it, add it to your watch list, share it with a friend, review it on the app. So all those things are what the app does when you’re holding it in your hand. But the bigger mission of PopViewers is to be able to have our analytics be a resource for the studios, for the content creators who are spending a lot of money on research to try to figure out what to create next and how to market their content to the right audiences. So our PopViewers community really, on its best day, is a massive focus group for all the networks and studios to be able to utilize.

Emily Votaw: Why is it so important for the individual viewer to be able to see someone that looks like them in the media they consume?

Chris Witherspoon: I think it’s what we have to do right now. I think that TV and film is a part of our everyday life. For example, you asked me about New York, how did I make it in New York? It was because of all the films and shows that I watched. You know, there weren’t that many people of color on “Friends,” but I always watched “Friends,” which took place in New York City. I think that the content that we watch, especially now, it’s how we’ve been connected the past two years. And the stories that you see told are really how we, in many ways, see other people. If I’m watching a show about an Asian American family, what I’m seeing is gonna inform my perspective in many ways on the Asian American community and so on and so on. So I think it’s so important that the content that we see truly reflects diversity and also gets it right, and that there’s a wide array of depictions of different groups of people. Now, I just did a screening a couple nights ago for Sony Pictures of a new movie called “The Woman King.” I was talking to Sony about what we’re creating right now. And they’re very interested in potentially partnering at some point. We talked about how they really look to analytics to inform what kind of content they should make and how analytics are so precious. It’s hard for them to find deep cuts of analytics like we offer to help them really see what folks are watching and gravitating to and why. And not just what they’re watching and loving, but what they’re watching and think could be done differently and better. Cause it’s so important.

Emily Votaw: Going back to the Emmys. The Emmys don’t have an amazing track track record when it comes to honoring creatives that aren’t white men. The most recent Emmys had some great moments, had some awkward moments. I’m curious, from your perspective, are the Emmys moving in the right direction, in the right way when it comes to honoring diversity in the industry?

Chris Witherspoon: They’re doing a lot better job. I think if you would have asked me this question five years ago, I would’ve said “hell to the no!” But I think that with the most recent Emmy Awards, it was phenomenal seeing the women that won that won awards. I think that Sheryl Lee Ralph, you know, at 65 years old, she’s been largely overlooked for many years. And she’s done Emmy worthy work before — she’s done work that should have been nominated for Tony Awards and the Oscars! But seeing her be able to get her overdue credit was phenomenal. I also think that one of the categories that we gotta see a lot more representation in is in the writing category. Whether that’s people of color, women in general, winning that award, it moves the needle forward because when you can write a show as a woman or a person of color, you’re also able to dictate the casting, what those characters will look like, what stories these characters will tell.

So Quinta Brunson winning the award for “Abbott Elementary,” that was huge. She’s only the second black woman ever in the history of the Emmys to win that award. I think I also saw strides with ageism in Hollywood. That’s a huge thing: when you are a woman and you’re over a certain age in Hollywood as an actress, oftentimes you’re overlooked. Jean Smart, 71 years old, won the Best Actress in a Comedy Award. She’s only the second person to win that award who was over the age of 70. So it was phenomenal! And I think she still has her best work ahead of her. So I think that we’re seeing a lot of strides, but I do believe we can do better. The fact that I’m saying things like “this was the second black woman ever to get this award,” — that’s bad. We have to have a lot more of those happening on a more regular basis. But we’re getting there, we’re getting there.

Emily Votaw: Social media sort of came into dominance as you were simultaneously rising in the industry. What was it like to witness that shift within the industry firsthand as someone in the industry?

Chris Witherspoon: You know, it was magical and amazing. So, I worked with NBC News for a very long time. And there’s a share meeting that happens every morning at 9 a.m. And it’s all of executive producers and the leaders from different shows coming together and talking about the news that they’re gonna be covering that day — and also talking about what we should cover tomorrow and this week. So I remember being a part of the grio.com, this African American news startup back in 2012, and going to this share meeting with Joy and one of the editors, and we’d go and we’d begin pitching stories. I remember in 2012, Joy pitched a story about a young boy who was shot in Sanford, Florida. And it was a story that was very local. Joy had seen it on Twitter. The NBC news share team was like, “okay, that’s interesting, it’s very sad — keep us updated.” But at that point it’s not being covered on any of national news wires yet — the AP hadn’t even covered it.  Reuters hadn’t covered it yet, but it was happening on Twitter. In Florida, it was like all these reporters and just like citizen journalists were talking about this kid, Trayvon Martin, who was killed by someone who should not have had a gun. And a few days later it just kept trending on Twitter. So guess what? NBC News went wall to wall with it for the very first time.

A story that hadn’t been national news in the sort of formal way that we know it became something that did not stop trending on Twitter for weeks on end. NBC sent Joy to like Florida with a camera crew to literally do step by step of how Trayvon Martin got shot. And we saw it happen again with Tamir Rice. There were so many young people of color who were getting shot by the police — and guess where the reporting was happening? Twitter! Twitter first, then the newsroom was like, “oh, we have to cover this.” It happened with #OscarsSoWhite — I’m friends with April (Reign) who tweeted that! She was not a journalist. She was not a reporter. She was working in PR in marketing at the time! <laugh> But she saw the Oscar nominations, and was like ‘this ain’t right. Oscars so white! #OscarsSoWhite — and then it just took off like wildfire! So I think that it’s been incredible to see how everyday people have the power in their hands to record something that they see going down that shouldn’t be happening, like police pulling someone over and being too rough with someone — those stories wouldn’t have legs were it not for social media, were not for Facebook video, Twitter video, and also people saying “this isn’t right, I’m gonna reshare this.” And then suddenly the newsroom says, “okay, we gotta cover this. And we gotta go wall to wall with it because everyday people care about it.” So I think it’s been phenomenal. And it’s not just with social justice issues. It’s with entertainment, it’s with politics — Twitter and other social media dominates the discussions. That’s really why I also wanted to create Popviewers because the idea of us having all these analytics and also momentum around social conversations around films and shows, we can then turn that into momentum that can become news.

Our crowdsource reactions from a film after it hits theaters Monday morning? That should be news. Very soon. You should begin hearing on TODAY “oh, you know, ‘The Woman King” dropped, it made a 100 million dollars at the box office and on Popviewers, it had this score and was trending. And we had this many reactions and this is the first time that’s ever happened.”

Emily Votaw: From your perspective, what kind of obligations — ethically and morally — does someone who might be considered an entertainment journalist, as opposed to a hard news journalist, have to their audience?

Chris Witherspoon: Ooh. You know, I think, ethically and morally, one of the most important things that you have to do is make sure that whenever you are sitting down with someone, that you’re asking the questions that really matter. I always say that when I interview someone, I don’t do vanilla questions. You’re not gonna see me sit down with a cast of a film that was trash <laugh> and just sit with them and just celebrate the film and not ask the tough questions, you know? Or if there’s a show or a movie that came out that has a subject matter that is newsworthy. I’m gonna ask you that question that’s gonna tie into the news of what’s happening. And you can say, ‘I don’t wanna answer that question,’ but I’m still gonna ask you that.

And I think it’s very important as journalists to make sure that you asked the question that your audience wants to have you answer. So — interviewed Oprah three times. But the first time I interviewed her, it was at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. And I interviewed her for a film called “The Butler.” I had a good eight minutes with her in this hotel room. And then I had to go interview a lot of other people, Lee Daniels, Forest Whitaker. And I’m done with my interviews and I’m sitting in the hallway waiting for one more interview. And Oprah comes out of the room where I interviewed her, and she’s standing in front of me. I saw her feet first — and I just didn’t wanna look up. Cause I was like, “those are Oprah’s toes! I know they are! And why is she standing in front of me? I’ve already interviewed her!” And she says my name. And she begins talking to me. And before I could even let her finish, I said, “Oprah,” and I’m looking up at her. I’m like “Oprah, thank you so much for all the interviews you did with my friends and my colleagues. Everyone said the same thing. You answered all of our questions, and you not only gave us the opportunity to get in front of you, but you also gave us great tape. You gave us great sound bites. You really answered our questions.”

And she was like, “well, you know, Chris, I was once in your shoes. I once worked for this TV station, a local news station. And they sent me to go interview Robin Williams and Priscilla Presley — and Elvis had just died. Robin Williams was doing this show called “Mork & Mindy” and Priscilla was guest starring on the show. So, my news editor says, ‘when you get there, ask about the little show, whatever — but ask Priscilla about Elvis.’ I walk in. And the first thing that the producer says to me is ‘no Elvis questions!'” And I was like, “so what’d you ask him about?” And she was like, “oh, you know, some, some BS — but Chris, that’s when I made it a rule. When I got my show, when I got the Oprah Winfrey show, which was very successful, I told my team that no matter who the person is, if they say I can’t ask a question, they can’t come on this show. I don’t care who they are, what they did.” And, so I’m like “even Beyoncé?” And Oprah was like “even Beyoncé.” I was like “Michael Jackson?” She said, “Michael Jackson too.”

If you’re talking about ethical responsibility to your audience — Oprah said ‘my job is to ask the questions that my viewers wanna know. If you want to not answer it, you can say, ‘I’m not gonna answer that, Oprah’ or ‘next question.’ But at least my viewers know that I asked the questions that they care about.’ And I think that’s our job as journalists — is to make sure that we don’t leave questions on the table. If you’re interviewing Michael Jackson and you can visibly see his skin is as light as the Dickens and all these tabloids reports are out about him having boys in his bed, you gotta ask those questions. And Oprah’s Neverland Ranch interview, to this day, is my favorite interview because she asked him everything and he answered. And if he didn’t answer, he found ways to say “I’m not going there,” or “Oprah, that’s nonsense.” But yeah, I think our job is just to a ask the tough questions no matter what.

Emily Votaw: So how did you prepare for that? How did you prepare for your first interview with Oprah Winfrey?

Chris Witherspoon: So, funny story for that interview. I wasn’t supposed to have her! And I was fine with that. I was kind of still new — again, I’ve only 10 years doing this, I still am kind of new. So they told me that I had Jesse Williams, I had Forest Whitaker. I had Lenny Kravitz. Those are all big name people. So I’m like, ‘I’m good. I don’t need Oprah.’ The way this works, when you’re a journalist and you’re going to interview people in the casts of these shows, normally it happens in hotels and they make these hotel rooms look very special. They have a camera crew and the movie posters behind the person. And each room is like stepping into the essence of this person. <laugh> It’s like speed dating. You have like five minutes or eight minutes with them to ask about three or four questions. And then when you’re done, they give you your tapes. There’s a media room. They give you all your files from each room. You are in two cameras, sometimes three, if it’s a boujie interview, you get three cameras. So you just walk in, you sit down, the cameras are rolling, you slate your name and you go. So I’m at this table getting my room assignments for Lenny and Jessie and this woman says to me, “oh, and then you have room two with Oprah.” And I was like, “excuse me? They told me I didn’t have Oprah. I asked for her, but they said I don’t have her. I’m good.” She was like, “oh no, no, you have Oprah. And she’s gonna be your first person!”

I had no questions written for her! <laugh> I had no questions, and I’m having a full blown panic attack. So I sat in front of her room just writing questions ,trying to figure out: what do I ask Oprah? What do I ask Oprah? But, then, God intervened: all of a sudden the interviewer in front of me finishes. And her security came out and he was like: “Chris, we need 10 minutes. Oprah’s contact is bothering her. I have to go up to her hotel room and get her a new contact.” I was like “Oh, thank you Jesus!” So I sat there. I composed myself. My heart was racing. Cause she was literally in the room next to me. And this is my childhood idol — everything about me in terms of my career really stems from something Oprah said on her show or just like her story. So I’m like, “okay, take your time.” I’m hoping the elevator breaks and all that. And by the time he came back down, Emily, I was ready. I was ready. I had my questions. It was phenomenal. But when I walk into the room, Oprah says, “Chris Witherspoon!” just like she does when she interviews a guest — and she’s a guest and I’m like, “I know Oprah’s not saying my first and my last name.” And she said like three times! And I sit down and she’s just like so happy to see me. Like she knows me. And so that’s why I thanked her in the hallway. But yeah, that’s how I prepared. And it almost was a disaster <laugh>

Emily Votaw: Wow. But it worked out so spectacularly.

Chris Witherspoon: Yes, it did! And it went viral. I wanna say that. That was my first viral moment. So Oprah talked about Trayvon Martin in that interview and she had never talked about Trayvon Martin. And by the way, I didn’t bring up his name. I asked her a question about the Obama administration, because she was starring in a film about this butler who worked for Kennedy and a bunch of other folks — and Oprah brought up Trayvon Martin and compared the death of Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till. So I walk outta that interview and I email a TODAY show producer and say, “Hey, I actually got Oprah. I wasn’t supposed to, but I got her. Do you all want the tape? I think it’s really good. We talked about a lot of great stuff.” And they were like: “when you get home, send it our way, child!”

I went home. I went to bed cause I was exhausted. I wake up at eight in the morning, and my phone’s blowing up. Everybody and my mama was calling me and texting me. And they’re like, “Chris, you’re on the TODAY show.” I’m like, “no I’m not. I’m in bed!” <laugh> And they’re like, “no, you’re on the TODAY show!” On the TODAY show, they had tossed to my interview   and they said, “we have an exclusive with Oprah, from Chris Witherspoon, from TheGrio and she’s talking about Trayvon Martin.” They show the clip everywhere! It was on FOX news. I get a call from MSNBC calling me, telling me “Christopher, we’re bringing you in studio to discuss your Oprah interview”. I’m like “Really? Me?” So it was one of those moments that was divine. Like me getting her, her saying what she said without me really at even asking about Trayvon Martin. It turned into a thing, a thing thing. And I got an agent from it! That’s the Oprah effect!

Emily Votaw: That’s all I have for you today, Chris. Thank you so much for your time!

Chris Witherspoon: Thank you for having me! You guys listening, dream big! Shoot for the stars. Cause if I can do it — y’all can do it.