Harpo Studios starts staff downsizing

Nothing lasts forever, as Harpo Studios’ loyal employees are finding out, as layoffs have started in earnest following the end of Oprah’s 25-year Chicago show last month.

Last December, 50 staffers left the Chicago company to join the new Oprah Winfrey Network in L.A., leaving about 400 full and part-time employees.  The recent layoffs that began May 27 will put the retained staff at around 130.

The question is, how many of the employees will remain at to work on Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show, which start taping for airing on Oprah’s new OWN network on Discover.

Oprah leaves, Rosie O’Donnell enters, to tape her shows for OWN at HarpoO’Donnell’s show will be the only TV show being produced at Harpo, leaving the fate of the West Side studio up in the air.

Last month, Harpo notified the Illinois Dept. of Employment Security that it planned to start laying off an unspecified number of workers on May 25 and continue throughout the summer, Crain’s Chicago Business reported.

“Most of those leaving us are doing so voluntarily to pursue other interests,” a Harpo spokeswoman stated in an Email to Crain’s, giving industry experts pause as to where those “other interests” might be found, since production jobs are in short supply and Oprah’s show was the last of its species in Chicago. 

“We are tracking on a daily basis the number of employees who have accepted new positions or leave voluntarily vs. those who … suffer an ’employment loss’ within the meaning of the law… All employees were made aware of this rightsizing months ago.”

Editorial comment:  When Oprah moved into the 88,000 square foot West Side facility in 1988, it had existed as a major movie studio for the previous 30 years.

The domain of Fred A. Niles Productions, who converted the mammoth space from an empty roller rink, the studio was a hub of non-theatrical production, except for Niles’ occasional foray into low-budget, indie features.  

For the acquisition, Harpo spent a total of $10 million for property and subsequent renovations.

As a prominent landmark and visual media center for more than 50 years, the studio should be retained at all costs.  If the City of Chicago had the financial resources through, say, a public-private deal, Harpo would be an excellent investment that would go far to reestablish Chicago as a top-tier production center.

The last thing the West Side needs is more condominiums.

What do you think should be done to save Harpo Studios as a filming facility?