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After 25 Years Atop Daytime TV, Oprah Takes Final Bow to Run Network

May 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
After 25 years, Oprah Winfrey signed off from her top-rated daytime television talk show for the final time Wednesday. Gwen Ifill discusses Oprah's lasting impact on television and American culture with Audrey Edwards, formerly of Essence Magazine, and The Los Angeles Times' Mary McNamara.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, the end of the daytime road for the woman known by one name: Oprah.

OPRAH WINFREY, The Oprah Winfrey Show: I’m Oprah Winfrey. And welcome to the very first national Oprah Winfrey Show!


GWEN IFILL: On Sept. 8, 1986, The Oprah Winfrey Show joined an afternoon glut of confessional talk programming.

OPRAH WINFREY: You know, when I started, not even I imagined that this show would have the depth and the reach that you all have given it.

GWEN IFILL: By the time she signed off today, 4,500 episodes and 48 million weekly viewers later, she had eclipsed them all and become her own mega-brand, the queen of daytime talk.


Her farewell celebration, taped at Chicago’s United Center last week, was extravagant and star-studded. Her words sold millions of books. She produced Hollywood movies, Broadway plays.

But, for many, it was her afternoon program, which aired in 150 countries that turned her into an icon and taste-maker.

OPRAH WINFREY: One, two, three.


GWEN IFILL: The massive giveaways

OPRAH WINFREY: Everybody gets a car!

GWEN IFILL: The struggles with her weight — in 1988, she famously wheeled out a wagon loaded with 67 pounds of fat, equivalent to the pounds she had recently lost.

And the emotional appeals — in a 1987 town hall, residents of a small West Virginia town confronted their prejudices toward people with AIDS.

WOMAN: And I think that people here needs to stop and think what would you do if it was yours?

GWEN IFILL: As founder and CEO of Harpo Productions, Winfrey expanded to print in 2000, when she introduced “O, The Oprah Magazine.” It now attracts more than two million readers each month and features her face on nearly every cover.

And she is rich. Her net worth is now pegged at $2.7 billion. In 2010, “Forbes” magazine ranked her the third most powerful woman in the world.

But success hasn’t come without controversy. In 1998, a group of Texas cattlemen sued Winfrey after she expressed fears of contracting mad cow disease from beef. She won.

In 2006, she confronted discredited author James Frey for fabricating parts of a memoir that was one of her book club selections.

OPRAH WINFREY: I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.

GWEN IFILL: Earlier this month, she invited him back to apologize for being too hard on him.

And at the school she created to educate disadvantaged South African girls, a dorm matron was charged with abuse in 2007. The woman was later acquitted.

Presidents lined up to appear on “Oprah,” but it wasn’t until the 2008 campaign that she embraced partisan politics with her pivotal endorsement of Barack Obama.

OPRAH WINFREY: Is he the one?


OPRAH WINFREY: Is he the one?


OPRAH WINFREY: I believe he is the one.

GWEN IFILL: Her campaigning drew criticism in some quarters, and excitement in others.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have got to say, this — this is the biggest crowd we have had during this campaign.

GWEN IFILL: Winfrey announced that she would end her show a year-and-a-half ago.

OPRAH WINFREY: These years with you, our viewers, have enriched my life beyond all measure.

GWEN IFILL: But she isn’t leaving the spotlight or abandoning her brand.

Six months ago, she launched a cable network, OWN, which she named after herself, the Oprah Winfrey Network.

For more on Oprah’s impact on television and American culture, we turn to two people who have followed her career, Audrey Edwards, former executive editor of “Essence” magazine, and Mary McNamara, television critic for The Los Angeles Times.

Audrey Edwards, why is the end of this particular television show such a big deal?

AUDREY EDWARDS, “Essence”: Well, Oprah, for 25 years, was no. 1 in the ratings. That’s historic in and of itself.

And I think she literally transformed a nation in terms of how women in particular deal with issues. She taught a whole generation of women

that you can be the best that you can be. It’s about taking charge of your life. It’s about confronting your own fears and being the best that you can be.

And a 25-year reign is a long time. So, any time something of that length comes to an end, it’s going to be noticed. And she was no. 1 for all of those 25 years, which has got to be historic in terms of television history.

GWEN IFILL: Mary McNamara, your take on that?

MARY MCNAMARA, The Los Angeles Times: Well, I don’t think we have ever seen anyone quite like Oprah, anyone who’s had this kind of personal impact on popular culture.

There really isn’t a part of popular American culture at this point that hasn’t been transformed in some way by Oprah, whether it’s publishing, whether it’s, you know, the many products that she’s touted over the years, the gurus that she’s anointed.

I mean, it’s just kind of endless. And even more than that, Oprah has transformed the idea of what is important, of the personal narrative as a socially significant thing in our culture, as significant as any kind of study, as any kind of expert, the idea that your story matters.

And we see that everywhere. You could argue that the blogosphere, Twitter, you know, Facebook are all sort of spinoffs of the Oprah idea.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you to elaborate on that a bit, because there — it can be such a thing as too much self-involvement, too much navel-gazing, and that perhaps the Oprah phenomenon added to that, and not in necessarily that great a way.

MARY MCNAMARA: I would say absolutely. I mean, there are two sides of the Oprah effect. I mean, on the one hand, you do have this empowerment.

On the other hand, self-awareness is only a few steps away from narcissism. And, as you say, we are — we are a constantly chronicling culture right now. We find nothing more fascinating than our own stories. And so, I think that some of that is also due to Oprah.

GWEN IFILL: How about that, Audrey Edwards? Is that overstating it, to say that Oprah was the reason why we all became so self-absorbed?

AUDREY EDWARDS: Well, I think — I think it’s due to the media. I think it’s due to the media in general.

I think, in some ways, we are a narcissistic culture, but the media feeds upon that. Anyone can become a star. You have “American Idol.” You have all of the shows where the ordinary person can become a star. And I think all of that contributes to a kind of global or, in our case, societal narcissism. But I don’t think Oprah created that. I don’t think she created that.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you to expand on that, because was her success then — because this was no small success — about timing, when she came along in 1986, or was it about her? Was it something about her as a woman, as an African-American woman, who was able somehow to go into people’s homes, where nobody like her had ever gone before?

AUDREY EDWARDS: Well, I think Oprah showed us that the personal narrative is important, that the back story is important, that you need to know who you are to understand who you can become.

And I think that’s very important. I don’t see a negative in that. I think whatever negative comes out of that is fed by the hype that the media tends to do anyway with all kinds of things.

GWEN IFILL: How about her foray, Mary McNamara, into publishing? It seems like there was nothing — very few things I can think of that she touched that she didn’t turn to gold, whether it was a magazine or books or movies or plays.

MARY MCNAMARA: No, absolutely, I mean, she has been credited with resurrecting the publishing industry, she and J.K. Rowling. And it’s — and you can’t argue with that.

And that is — you know, there’s no downside to that. There’s no downside to, you know, exposing people to new writers, and then when she turned to the classics — you know, I think even the spat she had with Jonathan Franzen and then with James Frey — I mean, I think that that opened people’s minds and made people think about how books are written, what books mean, what it means to be chosen by a certain person.

I mean, after she started her book club, everyone had a book club. And who can argue against book clubs? No one.

And I’m not saying that Oprah is to blame for the culture of narcissism. I’m saying that there is — there is a — you know, that you can draw a line from one thing to the other. And I think, you know, she’s — why was she successful? Because she’s extraordinarily good at what she does.

I mean, I think it really comes down to the fact that Oprah understands, better than possibly anyone, the nature of live television and the ability to tell a story on live television. She was really good at that. She was really good at interviewing people and getting people to open up.

And, you know, whether that’s because she’s a woman, whether that’s because she’s African-American, I don’t know. I just know that she is tremendously good at what she does.

GWEN IFILL: Audrey Edwards, how about her foray into politics? That was when she came under some criticism from a lot of her own people, who said, wait a second, we count on you not to get down and dirty in that sort of thing. You’re supposed to be above it all.

And she ran the risk of alienating some of her supporters by endorsing Barack Obama.

AUDREY EDWARDS: Well, you know, Oprah is someone who has always been very passionate about whatever she cares about.

And one of the things that I think made her show so wonderful — and it explains why she would have a foray into politics — is that she wasn’t afraid to do anything. She wasn’t afraid to talk about any subject. Nothing was off-limits. Nothing was sacrosanct. And that included politics.

And because she was a television figure didn’t mean that she wasn’t an individual woman with feelings and opinions and a political perspective. And she shared that like she shared everything else. That was the Oprah way.

GWEN IFILL: Did her — did her success change the way we talk about, not just only politics, but the way we talk about gender and race and these large issues in our society?

AUDREY EDWARDS: I think her success changed how we talked about everything, from sexual abuse, to losing weight, to why can’t I get my man to marry me? I mean, she talked about everything. It was very public. It was very up-front. It was very honest. And it was very compelling as a result.


AUDREY EDWARDS: It was riveting. People who watched her were riveted.

GWEN IFILL: So, Mary McNamara, here’s the hard question, I suppose, at a moment like this, when, after 25 years…


GWEN IFILL: … and we can talk about all the ways that she made people cry, but after it’s all over, assuming that she’s going on to do other things, of course, how lasting an impact is this? It’s, after all, a television show. It’s one person.

Is it a lasting impact, or is it something that’s ephemeral, that we’re in this society where we’re always moving on to the next thing, goes away tomorrow?

MARY MCNAMARA: No, I think it’s — she’s had a lasting impact in — you know, in what we were talking about, in terms of women and girls feeling empowered, certainly, and also just in the way that the media treats personal issues, in topics that she brought into the public discourse that may not have come in as quickly. I mean, they’re there to stay.

And, also, just this idea — again, I cannot stress it strongly enough — that the personal matters, that what you are feeling, what an individual person — how an individual person experiences their life matters, and we see that everywhere now. We see that in journalism. We see that — television journalism, print journalism, just that idea of the personal story being so important.

And that was really her message, is this matters and it will — you can live the life that you want to. And so, I think that that is here to stay. And I think Oprah’s here to stay. I mean, to a certain extent, yes, we’re saying goodbye to the show, but she has her own network now. It’s not like this message is going anywhere. It’s not like she’s going anywhere.

If anything, she’s going to have even more influence…

GWEN IFILL: And, in fact…

MARY MCNAMARA: … if she can get her network to be anywhere near as successful as her show.

GWEN IFILL: In fact, she signed off by — to that effect.

Very briefly, Audrey Edwards, ephemeral or lasting?

AUDREY EDWARDS: Oh, lasting.

Any time you have been no. 1 for 25 years, you’re going to have a lasting impact. I mean, she’s already changed the nature of daytime television in many ways. We now have service shows. And a lot of those service shows are replacing the soap operas.


AUDREY EDWARDS: So, I think the impact is lasting and we will see it for years to come.

GWEN IFILL: We will get back on the couch and see if that’s true.

Audrey Edwards, Mary McNamara, thank you both very much.


AUDREY EDWARDS: You’re very welcome. Thank you.