Oprah Goes Out on TopFinal shows spell end of an era for talk queen and TV 5/23/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern
After 25 years on the air, Oprah Winfrey
is finally bidding goodbye to syndication
this week. The talk-show queen’s last episode
airs May 25.
“She was and is a phenomenon,” says Bill Carroll, vice
president of programming for Katz Television Group
Programming. “I don’t think we’ll ever see anyone or any
project that equals what she and her show have done.
Part of that is because of who she is, and part of that is
because times have changed over the past 25 years.”
Oprah Winfrey exploded into national syndication
in 1986 at the age of 32 when she was already a
broadcasting veteran. At 19, she became the youngest
person and first African-American to anchor the news
at WTVF Nashville. She then moved to Baltimore to
coanchor WJZ’s 6 p.m. news. Later, she hosted a local
talk show for the station.
In 1984, Winfrey moved to Chicago to host AM Chicago
for ABC’s WLS, which remains Oprah’s anchor station
today. WLS is the only station in the country that airs
the show at 9 a.m. In just one month, AM Chicago
started beating The Phil Donahue Show, which at the
time was daytime’s hottest show.
It didn’t take Roger King—the legendary television
distributor who also sold hit shows such as Wheel of
Fortune, Jeopardy! and Inside Edition to television stations—
long to spot Winfrey’s talent. The relentless
King began pitching the show to television stations—
about which station managers were so clueless that
they were referring to Oprah as “that Okra woman,”
says Carroll—and got it on the air 18 months later.
The show premiered on Sept. 8, 1986, with an episode
titled, “How to Marry the Man/Woman of Your
Choice,” a title that’s as interesting to the lovelorn today
as it was 25 years ago.
“When Oprah first came on, she was as much an
Everywoman as has existed,” says Carroll. “She was a
single woman looking for a relationship, who had issues
with her weight, and who was adjusting to living
in the big city. She was the prototype of the women
who were watching.”
The Oprah Winfrey Show was an immediate success
in daytime. King decided to take a risk and moved
the show to the higher-watched, more lucrative 4 p.m.
time slot to go head-to-head with Donahue on stations
across the country.
“Roger made the case that it was the ideal lead out
of soaps, but not initially that it was also a great news
lead-in. Later, it was proven that Oprah was the ideal
lead-in to news,” says Carroll. “Roger understood what
he could best make the case for, and then he did it.”
“For Hearst Television, Oprah has been the quintessential
news lead-in. She provided the one show that
was comfortable with every topic even when her viewers
weren’t,” says Emerson Coleman, Hearst Television’s
vice president of programming. “There was a lot
of laughter and a lot of crying when Oprah was on at 4
p.m., and believe me, she made a lot of news directors
look awfully good.”
Just two years later, Winfrey launched her own production
company, Harpo Studios, and
became only the third woman in U.S.
history, after Lucille Ball and Mary Pickford,
to own a top production studio.
Since then, The Oprah Winfrey Show
has crossed many barriers. Over the
years, the show won 48 Daytime Emmys;
it was so dominant that its producers
stopped entering the show in the competition.
When Oprah signs off on May 25,
4,561 episodes will have been produced.
Winfrey’s biggest shows are too many
to mention, but some that people particularly
remember are “Oprah’s Favorite
Things,” in which Winfrey gave away
items such as trips and iPods, throwing
audience members into a screaming
frenzy; the episode in which a newly thin
Oprah emerged pulling a wagon of fat;
and her gala 10-year anniversary party for her eponymous
Winfrey will close out her 25-year daytime run on
television stations with three days of epic celebrations.
The third- and second-to-last shows were taped
last week in front of some 13,000 people at Chicago’s
United Center. Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Will Smith
and Jada Pinkett-Smith were on hand to cohost, with
appearances from such stars as Josh Groban, Patti La-
Belle, Madonna, Beyonce, Aretha Franklin, Kristin Chenoweth,
Tyler Perry, Rascal Flatts and Usher. The slate
for the final episode remained under wraps at presstime.
“People often leave the stage too early or too late,”
says Carroll. “The timing for Oprah’s departure is of
her own doing at a time when things are changing. She
probably made the right decision at the right time.”
It is true that ratings for all daytime TV shows, including
Oprah, have fallen drastically in recent years,
but Oprah remains TV’s top talker.
Still, there’s no real need to say goodbye to Winfrey
just yet. Her eponymous network, OWN, is just getting
going. While the new network has gotten off to a rocky
start, fans can expect to see much more of Winfrey there
now that her syndicated show is taking its final bow.
“I’ll be surprised if OWN is not at least reasonably
successful,” says Carroll. “Once it’s the only place you
can see Oprah, I think the dynamic changes.”