There are few constants in the world of modern television. The primacy of the three major broadcast networks in the communications lives of Americans has given way to a 24/7 TV world as much a carnival midway as an information superhighway. The cablesphere has utterly splintered and stratified into a variety of specialized programming appealing to a broad range of tastes (watch for the launch of the 33rdº Masons Channel! Real soon!). To crib from Yeats, the center cannot hold. In the exploding universe of modern television, there never was much of a center, a constant, to begin with.
There are few constants in the world of modern television. Oprah Winfrey is one of them.
Since going on the air from Chicago on Sept. 8, 1986, Oprah has helped to redraw the face of daytime television as a conversational forum for topics from the giddily starstruck to the disturbingly pathological. With all apologies to “The Guiding Light” (the CBS daytime soap opera that ran for 57 years), for millions of loyal television viewers, mostly women, Oprah Winfrey has been the real guiding light: the simpatico spirit, the one who’ll ask questions they wouldn’t dare, the plain-spoken best friend that animated their lives and nourished hearts, souls (and astute advertisers) on a program that airs in more than 140 countries and seen by about 42 million viewers a week in the United States.
What Oprah started in 1986 continues, but not for much longer. Oprah — the show, the juggernaut, the TV phenomenon — starts its 25th season in January. It will be the last. Set your calendar functions for Sept. 9, 2011; that's the date that this televised iteration of the Oprah Era ends.
“I certainly never could have imagined the yellow brick road of blessings that have led me to this moment," she said just short of tearfully at the end of today’s program. “These years with you, our viewers, have enriched my life beyond all measure. And you all have graciously invited me into your living rooms, into your kitchens, and into your lives. …
“So here we are, halfway through the season, 24, and it still means as much to me to spend an hour every day with you as it did back in 1986. So why walk away and make next season the last?
“Here is the real reason: I love this show. This show has been my life. And I love it enough to know when it's time to say goodbye.
“Twenty-five years feels right in my bones and it feels right in my spirit. It's the perfect number — the exact right time.”
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Credit must be given: she knows how to bow out on top, or pretty close to it. Oprah begins her exit as her show’s ratings have dipped by about 7 percent (a problem that’s likely to be solved as advertisers sign on for her valedictory lap).
Her special project, OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, a joint venture with Discovery Communications, is being developed for a debut in 2011, before Oprah’s last show. OWN is expected to debut in about 74 million homes.
And what else could the true Queen of All Media be contemplating with a current Forbes-adjusted fortune estimated at $2.7 billion? What other surprises might she be thinking of for 2011?
Oprah has parlayed a restless curiosity, a philanthropic streak, a real empathy for her guests and viewers, and a flair for the unexpected into an empire whose engine is empowerment, a billion-dollar company that had the good sense to stay put right where it was, on North Carpenter Street in Chicago. Not New York. Not L.A. Staying put in Shytown proved that, rather than head out for either coast, Oprah could permanently relate to the heartland that helped make her a success.
Or think about the time in 2005, when Oprah asked almost 300 members of the studio audience to open gift boxes previously hidden under their chairs. They did, and found the keys to new Pontiacs inside. “You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!” That little stunt reportedly cost her about $7 million. The Pontiac deal proved that, just when you thought you had her pegged, Oprah could be totally, refreshingly surprising.
She’s promising nothing less as she winds things down. “Over this holiday break, my team and I will be brainstorming new ways that we can entertain you and inform you and uplift you when we return here in January,” she said today. “And then, season 25, we are going to knock your socks off.”
And the world of politics can always use some empathy, some generosity — and some surprises. Buying votes isn’t Oprah’s style, of course, and thank God for that. But what do 2010 and 2011 look like for this fly-girl tycoon of boundless ambition and serious cash flow, a year or two before another national election?
On July 10, the Chicago Sun-Times reported, Illinois Sen. Roland Burris announced officially his intent to retire at the end of his contentious, controversial term, in January … 2011. The election to replace Burris is in November 2010.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed “There are no second acts in American lives.” since he checked out of this world at the age of 44, that was almost certainly true for him.
But Scotty didn’t know Oprah. Over the next two years, we’ll find out how well we know Oprah. And maybe how much we don’t.
Image credits: Oprah: © 2009 Harpo Inc. Burris: Public domain.