Empress Oprah: Then and Now
It has been a long good-bye. Longer than it took for NBC’s The Voice to get on the air, longer than it took William and Kate to get hitched, Oprah has been saying so-long. Since announcing (back in November of 2009!) that this season of The Oprah Winfrey Show—her 25th–would be her last, the indomitable, omni-present Ms. Winfrey has been showered with superlatives and already tearful good-byes about her contributions to television, women and America in general.
The canonization of Oprah—actually something long in progress—reached a to-date highpoint last year with her 2010 saluting by the Kennedy Center Honors, an annual event usually meant to celebrate the world’s foremost artists, creators and performers. And, apparently, now, talk show hosts. To review a list of Kennedy Center Honorees and see Winfrey’s name in amidst the likes of Martha Graham, Tennessee Williams, and Aaron Copland is to recall the Sesame Street refrain “One of these things doesn’t belong here.” Will Ricki Lake be on next year’s roster?
Amongst all the platitudes, few have been able to have their own “ah-ha moment” about the show itself. That is: when she signs off the air, what exactly will we be missing? Despite the rare relevant hour (like some tough but good financial advice from money guru Suze Orman), The Oprah Winfrey Show has long ceased to be noteworthy, newsworthy or anything but shallow.
The highlight so far this season has been the free trip Orpah gifted to her studio audience last fall so that they could all hang with Hugh Jackman. Oprah’s Oz giveaway, of course, follows her legacy of largess that has included free cars and her famous “favorite things” episodes. But if giving away free stuff is all it takes to make “great” television and, assumedly, a great American then, by that same measure, Monty Hall and Bob Barker should not only be ready for their Kennedy Center close-up but be enshrined on Mount Rushmore too.
Even shows that have been less materialistic have not necessary been of any greater depth. Does the world really need another interview with John Travolta, Martha Stewart or Wynona Judd continuing to find herself? And what of the Big O’s frequent on-air road trips with best girlfriend Gayle King? And as much as Winfrey has declared her final season as the season of “the audience,” most shows so far seem to be mainly about Winfrey herself. From the introduction of a long-lost half-sister to a weird parade of burying-the-hatchet superstar chats (Whoopi Goldberg, Iyanla Vanzant), few hours have ever lets us forget whose name is in the title.
For years Oprah has been coasting, getting by on her likeability and her personal history with her viewers rather than anything of substance. Her daily gabfests are less about sharing information or exchanging ideas than they are about wasting an hour with Ms. Winfrey. In that regard, she is more of a modern day Arthur Godfrey than any sort of media messenger leading the way to “living your best life.”
Granted even her worst shows these days are better than the daily fight fests of Jerry Springer’s show or the DNA roulette that is now the stock and trade of Maury Povich. But, then again, neither of these shows purport to be positive, life-affirming, life-changing experiences; Springer especially seems to proudly wear its low-brow sensibility on its sleeve.
Long celebrated for taking the “high road” in daytime talk over the more tabloid-y and sensational topics of her peers, Winfrey actually helped pioneer many of the themes she now eschews. A perusal of TV Guides–those disposable little digests which in retrospect are so full of history–from the late 1980s (Winfrey’s show went national in the fall of 1985) vividly illustrate a very different and long-forgotten Oprah Winfrey Show. Consider: the first few months of Oprah brought us such show topics as “Potential Dangers of Plastic Surgery,” “Feuding Families,” “Aryan Nation” (though their presence on a show hosted by an African-American woman seems to suggest that their participation was more about potential verbal fireworks than any exploration of underlying opinions or causes), “Obsessive Love,” “Satanic Worship,” and “The Other Woman.”
Subsequent early episodes addressed such issues as: “Neatness vs. Sloppiness,” a “’Dirty Dancing’ Contest,” “Celebrity Mothers,” “Men Who are Emotionally Dependent on Their Mothers,” “Pampered Pets,” “UFO Abductees,” “Psychics,” “Past Life Regression,” “Housewife Prostitutes,” “Bigamy,” “Hair Salon Horror Stories,” “Surgery to Enhance Your Sex Life,” “Real-Life Socialites,” and “Women Who Hate Sex.”
Other early installments also display a mindset far removed from “high road” aspirations. No doubt most regrettable for her and her show are two early, infamous hours: “When Your Best Friend Steals Your Man” and its spin-off “Man-Stealing Relatives.” Additionally, an early TV Guide also shows that Winfrey even did her own “secret crush” show but since hers did not end as violently as the one Jenny Jones did later, little mention has ever been made of it. (And this certainly isn’t something Winfrey is going to bring up now).
Other episode titles are also interesting. For a series that has often been criticized (perhaps fairly) of “man-bashing,” Oprah and her staff spent an awful lot of time in the beginning acting as pseudo-matchmakers, or celebrators of finding that perfect guy. Early episodes were devoted to Alaskan bachelors, a “Survey of Wealthy, Eligible Bachelors,” and even a “Husband of the Year” contest. In fact, Oprah’s first nationally-broadcast episode was on the topic of how singles could find a spouse or mate. Oprah also occasionally staged hours where she and her predominately female audience regressed to swooning school girls by mooning over the likes of Burt Reynolds and such “primetime hunks” as Jack Scalia and Bruce Greenwood. (This is something her show is still guilty of; note semi-recent hour-long devotionals to Brad Pitt and the aforementioned John Travolta).
Vintage Guide summaries also allow us to do a day-by-day, side-by-side comparison between Winfrey’s show and Phil Donahue’s, illustrating just how populist Winfrey was and, moreover, just how superficial almost all of daytime TV has since become. On the same day in the late 1980s that Donahue welcomed William Safire, Winfrey hosted Carol Burnett. A few months later, on the same day Phil used satellite technology to link his New York studio audience to a studio audience in the then Soviet Union, Oprah presented “Couples Makeovers.”
To be fair, Winfrey regularly interdispersed some of her more dubious topics with programs on timely, relatable and relevant topics. She did shows on “The US Welfare System,” “Prejudice Over Immigrants,” “Dealing with Difficult Bosses,” “Affirmative Action,” “AIDS,” “Post-partum Depression,” and other interesting issues. She was able to discuss all these topics with a minimum of shouting and no throwing of chairs, a distinction which even then was already distancing her from much of her competition.
To her credit, Winfrey has not completely forgotten from where she came, or negated her own influence. In 1994, she told Entertainment Weekly, “We started doing confrontational television… I believe it was important to introduce these issues and face the truth of who we were…. Instead, TV got stuck thriving on them and for the worst possible reasons—exploitation, voyeurism, and entertainment.”
Later, while still issuing her own mea culpa, Winfrey attempted to differentiate herself from many of her brethren by stating, “I’ve been guilty of doing trash TV and not even thinking it was trash. I don’t want to do it anymore. But for the past few years we’ve been leading the way for doing issues that change people’s lives. So I’m irritated and frustrated at being lumped in with those other shows.”
Still, however, it was Winfrey’s early choice of topics (and the way in which she discussed them), be they hyper-emotional or sensational, that changed the landscape of daytime TV by altering audiences’s appetites and what they were willing to watch.
That, and all that free stuff, ultimately may be her greatest legacy, sad as it might be.
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