A reign ends for perhaps the most influential personality in TV history

Posted May 23, 2011, at 3:46 p.m.

Get out your hankies. The end is near.

After 25 years of radiance, the Sun Queen is abandoning the air. The final episode of “Oprah,” shrouded in secrecy, will be broadcast Wednesday.

At this point if you’re not living your best life, the fault lies not with Oprah.

This boomer Bodhisattva has been a tireless guide to the human experience, both body and soul. She has provided viewers with a comprehensive instruction manual to life — in all its messy splendor.

“She made us read, think, and care about important issues,” said Nancy Glass, a producer of cable shows, in an email.

In so doing, Oprah has fashioned an incredibly intimate bond with her audience.

“Imagine you have a really good friend who lives on your block,” said Dr. Phil McGraw, one of the proteges Oprah has catapulted to fame.

“Every single day, she comes over and you sit down and talk about the things that matter. And she supports you when you’re troubled. Oprah has that kind of relationship with people she has never met. They trust her implicitly.”

Small wonder her impending finale is causing panic among her fans. Go to her website at Oprah.com and scroll through the discussion boards. They’re filled with desperate appeals like “Please, please, please Oprah! Don’t go!”

Take a breath, people.

“The end of the Oprah Winfrey show does not end Oprah,” Kathryn Lofton, assistant professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale University, said in an email.

“It merely signals the end of an era in which she has become a representative icon: an icon of suffering, of spiritual certitude, of material hunger, and of female empowerment.”

How can one woman mean so much to so many?

We’re all familiar with the creation story: Born to a poor single mom in rural Mississippi.

Given the Old Testament name of Orpah, which was so often mispronounced that the girl adopted a more mellifluous variation. Raped at 9. Pregnant at 14.

Broke into broadcasting at a local radio station, worked her way up to co-hosting a marginal TV morning show in Baltimore.

Then came the big break. WLS-TV in Chicago was looking to replace the anchor of “AM Chicago.” Similar format, far larger market.

Dennis Swanson, then newly installed as the station manager at WLS, recalls her audition. “We brought her in Labor Day weekend of 1983. We had to do it on a weekend so she could come to Chicago. We had her do a few segments. Tough ones. No layups. I’m watching on a monitor in my office and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my goodness. I’ve never seen anyone this good. She’s unbelievable.’

“You could see how at ease and natural she was. Even then she had this ability to ask questions and say things that nobody else could get away with,” said Swanson, now president of station operations at Fox.

“Her impact was immediate. We went from last to first in less than a month. In the time slot against Phil Donahue. In his home market.”

At the suggestion of film critic Roger Ebert, Oprah moved the show into national syndication, where it debuted Sept. 8, 1986.

Somewhere over the next 4,500 episodes, Oprah became far more than a talk-show host. She is arguably the most influential personality in the history of television, despite working in the sketchy neighborhood of afternoon TV.

She has been all things to all people: healer, confessor, martyr, seeker, avenger, celebrity, benefactor, teacher and guru.

Everything she touched seemed to flourish. Her acting debut in “The Color Purple”? Nominated for an Academy Award.

In 1996, she established Oprah’s Book Club, recommending works of particular interest and merit to her viewers.

“The expectation was ‘It couldn’t hurt.’ No one was prepared for this crazy thing to happen,” said Jacquelyn Mitchard, whose novel “The Deep End of the Ocean” was Oprah’s first selection.

“There were 4,000 hold requests put in for the book at the New York Public Library before the program was even over. My publisher had to borrow printing presses. The next week, I was back in Wisconsin and seeing teenage moms in the mall reading that book.”

Oprah’s coattails have been commodious. The niche consultants who came on her show, like Dr. Oz and Nate Berkus, became hot properties overnight.

Over time, all this success made Oprah extremely rich. Last year, Forbes magazine estimated her personal worth at more than $2.7 billion.

And she has always made money for the people associated with the show.

“In the past, analysis has shown that the No. 1 newscast in the market was the one following Oprah in almost every city,” said Bill Carroll, vice president of programming at Katz Television, which advises local stations on program acquisitions.

Superstar status has inevitably brought scrutiny, some of it mean-spirited.

Oprah’s fluctuating weight has been tabloid fodder for years.

The obsession with her appearance peaked when TV Guide Photoshopped Oprah’s head onto Ann-Margret’s body for an unintentionally bizarre cover image.

There have been consistent whispers about her seemingly dispassionate relationship with Stedman Graham, her longtime escort, as well as about her preternatural closeness with Gayle King.

But her career has remained singularly free of scandal, particularly for someone who has spent this much time in the heart of the spotlight.

Even her rivals praise her.

“I don’t think you can mention Oprah and me in the same sentence,” said Jerry Springer, who has always played yang to Oprah’s yin. “I do a circus. She does a very uplifting, inspiring talk show. She’s the best there is. Period.”

Summing up what Oprah represents and what she has accomplished in a quarter century of groundbreaking TV is a confounding task.

Perhaps it’s best to leave the last word to Oprah’s muse, poet Maya Angelou.

On the penultimate show, in front of 13,000 hysterical fans at Chicago’s United Center, accompanied by Alicia Keys on piano, Angelou declaims, “Unplanned and unrehearsed, this big-eyed black girl from Mississippi, showed the world how to look at itself … She listened to the rich and the poor, the famous and the infamous … For 25 years she listened. … She said, ‘Be strong, be kind, and call me Oprah.’ I can. I will. And I shall. Be Oprah. I am. Oprah. Oprah. Oprah.”

Recommend this article

SEE COMMENTS →