Oprah Winfrey, host of an acclaimed television talk show, has won so many awards and accolades that it is impossible to list them all. She has been named eight consecutive times—more than anyone else—to Time magazine’s annual list of the World’s 100 Most Influential People. In 2010, Forbes magazine named her third (behind Michelle Obama and the CEO of Kraft Foods) in its list of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World in recognition of the stature and influence she has achieved. She is also the world’s first African American billionaire, earning $1.35 billion over the past five years. As a change agent, Oprah—one of the few celebrities who can go by just one name—has by force of personality in a media-saturated world powerfully influenced cultural norms in television, books, politics, and the ordinary viewer’s understanding of celebrity.
Once an illegitimate child and victim of abuse who ran away from home at 13, Oprah today is regarded as the world’s most successful female media executive, the woman who changed the whole milieu of the talk show, from “report talk” to “rapport talk,” as Time magazine once characterized it. With her book club, she got more people reading more books than ever (and catapulted many authors to best seller status). Her endorsement of a presidential candidate helped put him in the White House. It is called “The Oprah Effect.”
With her confessional style and conversation about subjects like her battles with weight and her problems with relationships, Oprah offered realism and empathy, as well as a good dose of pop psychology, to the millions of women (and men) who tuned in to her hour-long show every afternoon. The sense that someone knew and cared about what they were going through was a magnet that gave the Oprah Win-frey show ratings in the stratosphere—30 million viewers a week with viewers in more than 100 countries—and kept it going for 25 years. Oprah has now moved on to launch her own network, OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, where various shows will feature Rosie O’Donnell, Duchess Sarah Ferguson, and Mark Burnett of Survivor, and guest appearances by Suze Orman, Dr. Phil, and Dr. Oz.
She does seem to be something of a media genius as well as an entrepreneur and empathizer-in-chief to her television audience. Gloria Steinem, writing in 2005 about Oprah’s appearance yet again on Time ’s 100 Influential People list, said that Oprah “creates an accurate and rare form of democracy”:
She makes viewers feel it is possible to change and to be extricated from difficult situations. And incidentally, she is instilling the masses with the habit of reading literature. That is not an insignificant thing.
Oprah’s Book Club, started in 1996 as part of her television show, had so much clout that it could make even a 1950s classic like John Steinbeck’s East of Eden back into a best seller in 2005. Publishers vied to get Oprah to talk about their books, which would see substantial sales if she featured them, and viewers who seldom read books were now out frantically buying the ones Oprah recommended. During the summer of 2005, she had 300,000 people reading a 1930s novel by William Faulkner. The book club offers its 2 million members free reading guidelines, online discussion groups, and author seminars.
It is not a gimmick to sell books; it seems to be part of who Oprah is, a woman with a good mind who is interested in culture and current events. She has some of the same interests and problems her viewers have and talks about them in a friendly, conversational way. In April 2000, she started a monthly magazine, O, that spoke to readers the same way and took the same approach in print as she did in person, offering articles on self-improvement, life planning, and looking good, with a circulation of 2.35 million readers. The magazine’s motto: “Live Your Best Life.”
She founded a film company in 1996, Harpo (Oprah spelled backward) Productions, which has produced many films including Beloved, based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel by Toni Morrison and starring Oprah Winfrey. She had made her acting debut in 1985 in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her performance. Harpo Productions also gave support to the film Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire. In addition, Harpo sponsors Oprah Radio on Sirius satellite radio and the official Oprah Web site, www.oprah.com .
Beyond these enterprises, Oprah has launched major philanthropy projects through her private charity, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Foundation, to improve education and the well-being of women and girls. In 2007, she founded the Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, a free school for disadvantaged girls in grades 7 through 12. The foundation awards grants through its Scholars Program to schools, libraries, teachers, and students to improve education in the United States and abroad and, through a related Oprah charity, Angel Network, has established new schools and women’s shelters. It was through Oprah’s efforts that Congress passed a bill to establish a national database of convicted child abusers. Known as the “Oprah Bill,” it was signed into law in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. It is no accident that Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, chose Oprah’s talk show to announce his $100 million gift to education and the schools of Newark, New Jersey, sitting alongside Oprah, the governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, and Mayor Cory Booker of Newark.
Oprah’s endorsement of Barack Obama during his presidential campaign in 2008 showed her powerful influence. A study by two University of Maryland economists found that Oprah’s support was responsible for an extra 1 million votes in the primary, giving Obama his win over opponent Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, when Oprah once casually remarked on her show that she would not eat “another burger” after she heard about mad cow disease, Texas cattlemen tried to sue her for “false defamation of perishable food.” They lost.
The whole idea of a television talk show was fairly formulaic until Oprah showed up. The format itself was a carryover from radio, a new technology introduced in the early 1920s that sent Americans rushing out to buy one. It was radio that homogenized American culture as never before, and talk shows were for many years a staple of radio programming (along with soap operas), taking up 40 to 60 percent of the daytime schedule. These shows were built on talk, entertainment, and audience participation. Hosts like Arthur Godfrey and Dave Garroway, broadcast pioneers, began their careers on the air, offering a more conversational approach than the typical voice-of-authority style. Both of them moved to television in the 1950s, Garroway founding the Today show on NBC in 1952 and Godfrey with Arthur Godfrey Time the same year. Other early talk show hosts were Edward R. Murrow, Arlene Francis, and Jack Parr, all of whom had a background in radio.
As markets expanded with cable and satellite channels, television talk shows hit their peak, with 20 new shows on the air by 1969. Stars of television talk, like Barbara Walters and Mike Wallace, began to emerge with a news and human interest format, and late night talk show hosts like Johnny Carson changed the focus to entertainment and comedy. Personality became the central draw of the talk show, which relied on a host who could attract a loyal following and celebrity guests who would provide human interest and some controversy. Phil Donahue, an anchor on a Dayton, Ohio television station, had started an afternoon call-in talk show, Conversation Piece, in the early 1960s, which eventually was syndicated nationally and became The Phil Donahue Show. What distinguished Donahue’s show and made it the longest consistently running talk show ever (26 years) was the addition of interviews to the talk show format, focused on controversial issues like abortion, sexuality, political issues, and religion. Donahue himself came across as a sincere, sensitive type with a strong interest in feminism, and he attracted a huge audience of women viewers.
Though Phil Donahue is given credit for establishing the essential formula of the modern talk show, the appearance of Oprah Winfrey on the scene in 1986 in her first talk show would challenge that and start a ratings war, one her own shrewd marketers may have initiated. Not only was Oprah breaking the color line as a black woman; now she was challenging the acknowledged king of the talk show to a showdown. By 1988, Oprah was bringing in twice as many viewers as Donahue and was already becoming a millionaire. She picked up where Donahue left off, discussing social issues and interviewing celebrities or guests involved in unusual situations that attracted attention (for example, on a recent show, she interviewed a 16-year-old who stabbed the man who had been molesting him for years). Some critics said that Oprah’s diversity of topics and focus on marginalized groups like gays have led to wider public understanding and acceptance.
It was Donahue’s “tabloid talk show” formula, but it was Oprah’s compassionate style and credibility that closed the deal on whose talk show would triumph. Her move into more substantial topics like self-improvement and spirituality gave the show a patina of seriousness and a reputation for authenticity that attracted viewers. As the Wall Street Journal has commented, “Oprahfication,” Oprah’s brand of personal confession as therapy, was powerful stuff.
Still, pop culture sensationalism was always a big draw. The highest-rated Oprah show ever was her interview with Michael Jackson in 1996, which drew 36.5 million viewers as the pop singer tried to dispel rumors about his private life. One of the more famous moments on Oprah was the exuberant couch-jumping episode in 2005 of Hollywood star Tom Cruise, expressing his love for a new girlfriend. Oprah has juiced up her fan base too with extravagant gifts, at one point in 2004 giving everyone in the audience a Pontiac G6 car. To mark the 25th year of her show in 2010, Oprah assembled her 300 most loyal viewers as audience and gave them all tickets for a trip to Australia with her—on a plane to be flown by John Travolta, the movie star and pilot named by the Oprah audience as their favorite guest.
Oprah draws on her own hardscrabble, troubled childhood to connect with that audience. Born Orpah Gail Winfrey on January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi to a teenage single mother, she was sent to live with her grandmother and remembers having to wear potato sacks to school. She had been named Orpah, after a character in the Bible, but the name was so often mispronounced as “Oprah,” it stuck. When she was six, Oprah and her mother moved north to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But by the time she was 9, she had been sexually abused and raped, and finally ran away from home at 13. She became pregnant at 14, but the baby died in infancy. Oprah’s mother finally sent her to live with the man who was believed to be her father, Vernon Winfrey, a barber in Nashville, Tennessee. He gave her some discipline and sent her back to school where she seems to have thrived, becoming an honors student and winning a college scholarship to Tennessee State University where she majored in communications.
Studying for her degree, Oprah also worked part-time at a local black radio station and later became the first black woman news anchor at another Nashville station. After a stint in Baltimore, Maryland, as a coanchor on the evening news, Oprah was recruited in 1978 to cohost the station’s local talk show. Five years later, she was in Chicago, hosting a half-hour morning talk show, which became so popular that it overtook Phil Donahue in the ratings. The rest is history. Renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show, it went national, expanded to a full hour, in 1986, and Oprah was on her way to becoming an influential national presence.
As linguist Deborah Tannen, writing in Time magazine, later said, Oprah was creating a new form of media communication:
Winfrey saw television’s power to blend public and private; while it links strangers and conveys information over public airwaves, TV is most often viewed in the privacy of our homes. Like a family member, it sits down to meals with us and talks to us in the lonely afternoons. Grasping this paradox, Oprah exhorts viewers to improve their lives and the world. She makes people care because she cares. That is Winfrey’s genius, and will be her legacy, as the changes she has wrought in the talk show continue to permeate our culture and shape our lives.
“In a society where fat is taboo, she made it in a medium that worships thin and celebrates a bland, white-bread prettiness of body and personality,” as Ms magazine noted. “Winfrey made fat sexy, elegant—damned near gorgeous—with her drop-dead wardrobe, easy body language, and cheerful sensuality.” Her confessional style was infectious; even President Bill Clinton was accused of using a quivering lip and emotional affect to “feel your pain,” as “the man who brought Oprah-style psychobabble and misty confessions to politics,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said. In a 2006 column, “Oprah! How Could Ya?,” Dowd said of Oprah, “She is the top alpha female in the country. She has more credibility than the president—she is a straight-ahead success story.” Meanwhile, then-Senator Barack Obama was on another talk show telling Larry King that he thought Oprah “may be the most influential woman in the world.”
Dowd, Maureen. “Oprah, How Could Ya?” The New York Times, January 14, 2006. http://select.nytimes.com/2006/01/14/opinion/14dowd.html?scp=1&sq=Maureen+Dowd%2C+%22Oprah%2C+How+Could+Ya%3F%22&st=nyt.
Gillespie, Marcia Ann. “Winfrey Takes All.” Ms magazine, November 1988.
Kelley, Kitty. Oprah. New York: Crown, 2010.
Steinem, Gloria. “Oprah Winfrey: How America Got with the Program.” Time magazine, April 10, 2005. http://www.time.com/time/subscriber/2005/time100/heroes/100winfrey.html .
Tannen, Deborah. “Oprah Winfrey: The TV Host.” Time magazine, June 8, 1998. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,988512–2,00.html.