In 2002, Oprah announced she would end her TV show in 2005, but apparently her skeletal system had other plans. Last week, she announced her final show will air in September 2011, and this time, she has buy-in from her femurs and scapulas and also the very depths of her ineffable essence. “After much prayer and months of careful thought, I’ve decided the next season, Season 25, will be the last season,” she exclaimed. “Twenty-five years feels right in my bones, and it feels right in my spirit.”
The ceremonial 18-month farewell tour has already begun, but of course Oprah isn’t actually leaving us, ever. Indeed, suppose she keeps her promise and really ends her show this time. Suppose she shuts down O, The Oprah Magazine, and Oprah.com, and decides to abort her upcoming cable channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network, before lift-off. Suppose some mystical force of the universe erases every minute of the more than 4,000 episodes of her show that have aired since it made its national debut on 138 stations in 1986. Oprah will still be with us everywhere, the earth’s third most common element, right after oxygen and silicon.
Technically, of course, it was Phil Donahue who initially injected daytime TV with large doses of audience participation, shocking candor and ad hoc therapy—when he started his show in 1967, Oprah was just 13 years old. But while the white-haired former news anchor was the first host to capitalize on the fact that there was an audience out there whose definition of “current affairs” was much different than, say, Walter Cronkite’s or David Brinkley’s, Oprah, when she kicked off the national version of her show in 1986, actually was that audience: Young, confessional, self-absorbed and eager for self-actualization.
Right from the start, Oprah shared her own traumas and struggles with her audience, and they in turn revealed details about their lives with unprecedented frankness. In 1988, when Oprah’s producers attempted to recruit clinical depressives for an upcoming show, Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene figured there was no way people who could barely drag themselves out of bed would respond. As it turned out, however, that call to action prompted the most requests for tickets the show had received to date. “We have five [phone] lines, and they all stayed lit up for hours,” a staffer told Greene.
Oprah had discovered the secret to what would ultimately grow into a multi-billion dollar fortune. Everyone in America was screwed up! And they all wanted to talk about it, on national TV: the couples who were divorcing each other in order to spice up their sex lives, the mothers of sons who’d hung themselves while masturbating, the women who were in love with pedophiles.
Once Oprah invited her audience to share their personal soap operas with the world, the clock started ticking for Hollywood’s soap operas—they couldn’t compete with the weirdness, the immediacy, the lurid appeal of real people boldly airing their dirty laundry to millions.
But even as Oprah made the previously exclusive world of television accessible to ordinary freaks and deviants, thus prepping us for the narcissistic, over-sharing world of the web to come, she also kept attention focused on herself. Chronicling her struggles with weight-loss and overeating, talking candidly about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, sharing her quests for personal enlightenment, recounting the virtues of cashmere socks, Oprah realized earlier than just about anyone else except maybe Howard Stern that the path to superstardom in the new hyper-mediated age of the late 20th century would be blazed by those who understood that no aspect of their lives was too personal or too mundane to broadcast in as public a manner as possible.
At 55, Oprah has no children of her own, but her spiritual children are everywhere. She helped pioneer the entertainment-as-therapy ethos that permeates reality TV and tell-all literary memoirs. Her appetite for self-aggrandizement sets a standard that no blogger, webcam girl or crazy dictator has been able to match. (Not even Saddam Hussein had a magazine that featured his visage on its cover month in and month out.) The overt emotionalism she brought to her role as TV host is now echoed by everyone from the ladies on The View to Glenn Beck. Long after she engineers her last surprise giveaway, offers advice and moral support to her last problem hoarder, and tells us about her favorite pair of jeans, her influence will continue to resonate.