Oprah Winfrey: the next phase for a cultural touchstone
Wednesday's final episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" marks more than the host's shift to cable network. We're watching the launch of the next phase of an economic and cultural icon.
WEDNESDAY'S final episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" marks more than the host's shift to cable network. We are watching the launch of the next phase of an economic and cultural icon.
Oprah built an unrivaled platform as a talk-show host who did more listening than talking. Yes, Oprah shared secrets — childhood sexual abuse, a baby at 15 and weight issues so trying she once devoured a pack of frozen hot dog rolls — but only to make it easier for America to share theirs.
That would have left her merely the female equivalent of former talk-show master Phil Donahue if not for a shrewd business sense. Oprah sits atop a media empire and is just the third woman in the American entertainment industry (after Mary Pickford and Lucille Ball) to own her own studio.
Oprah's life journey lent her credibility. When the woman who survived a hardscrabble Mississippi childhood challenged fans to live their best lives, it was no surprise she got takers.
Oprah's show will go down as the highest-rated talk show in television history, but a better cultural barometer is the way her show propelled daytime talk shows out of the middlebrow cultural realm into something with greater force and impact.
For all that, Oprah never had to resort to artifice. She did not pat guests on the back while shredding their personal lives for entertainment's sake. No hair-pulling, chair-throwing guests on her show.
A sense of humanity and self-respect gave Oprah a star-generating power advertising cannot buy. If she gushed about a personal trainer or chef, they became instant celebrities. Publishers turned to Oprah knowing her stamp of approval turned books into best-sellers.
Such power can backfire, as in 1996 when Oprah referenced mad-cow disease and famously said she would never eat beef again. She was sued for defamation by a group of Texas cattle ranchers.
But by nimbly sidestepping such pitfalls for most of the 25 years her show was on the air, Oprah leaves daytime television a popular and powerful cultural touchstone.
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