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Oprah, the Long Goodbye

5 years ago
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Drama queens don't come any better than this one: On the day of her earth-shaking announcement, at the appointed hour, when hundreds of thousands, nah, millions of viewers were eagerly waiting in front of TV sets across the nation, hankies in hand, to hear her say the words they already knew she would say, she made them wait 45 minutes longer, until the end of the taping of her show. At last, radiant in her lilac-colored blouse, choking back tears, Oprah Winfrey said, "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."
The words, the voice, had the whiff, the drawl of her native Mississippi. It was vintage Oprah sentiment. No one expected anything else from her or from her studio audience, who exploded into howling applause. Surely a similar scene was going on in living rooms across the nation. All day long, the tributes followed. Video bites of her announcement were played repeatedly, and there was nothing buzzier, chattier on cable talk shows or on Web news sites than Oprah. It was a daylong "aha moment."
Oprah was leaving network television, ending her run as the nation's -- the world's -- top daytime talk show host, one of the country's top entertainers, one of the richest, and probably its most influential performer (someone suggested that her endorsement of Barack Obama elected him president). Someone mentioned that Time magazine had selected Oprah one of the world's most influential 100 people seven times in a row -- more than anyone else on the planet. Those usually snarky commentators, columnists and TV talking heads scrambled this time not for the knife in the back but for the grace note, the bon mot, the glowing remark they could rest at Oprah's feet. She was our spiritual adviser, our mother confessor. Someone said Oprah was an Alpha female, more influential than presidents of the United States. TV anchors and commentators gave us variations of "it's a seismic change in TV" and many mourned, or marked, the end of an era. Superlatives, after a while, lost their meaning. You had to take a deep breath.
Few people in the world could turn a job change into an occasion for reflection, mourning, questioning, admiration and celebration. Oprah has done so. She's leaving 7.1 million viewers and broadcast TV for her own cable channel, OWN, named, like her magazine, after herself. She's not ending her career, retiring to a sunny island to write her memoirs. She's really in transition, lucky her. She's got another war in her. At 55, wealthy, immensely respected and very smart, she's moving from an old life to a new one. She'll probably leave Chicago for the palm trees and beaches of Southern California where she owns a mansion in divine Montecito. She'll make more millions of dollars. She will create something different we will all watch. She'll be back in front of the camera. She's too big to fail, said Tina Brown, a cliché that rang true anyway. But "The Oprah Winfrey Show" has 18 months to go. This will be a long goodbye. We can imagine that final day, in September 2011, when she'll bring down the curtain and call it a wrap. Funny, it feels like it's over already, like we've done all that.
So we're all wondering, who'll replace her as queen of the day? Ellen DeGeneres surely must be considered. But truth is, there's Oprah and there's nobody else, not at this time. She was a generational genius, one of those people who came along at the right time. No one on the talk show circuit has her range. She bared her soul. She talked openly, honestly and painfully of rape and incest (including her own), she dealt full-front with divorce and infidelity, she confronted rumors that she was a lesbian. She brought to daytime TV victims of crime and victims of love, and the sordid tales of a string of hard-luck cases. She entertained us with movie stars (who can forget Tom Cruise jumping on her sofa to proclaim his love for Katie Holmes?) and she gave us fading singers looking for redemption (Whitney Houston) and she seemed to those of us who watched her infrequently that she grappled bravely with victory and defeat, her own and others'. She obsessed openly about her weight, and made us all conscious of weight and diet. She's responsible for Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz (whatever they're worth), best-selling books and movies she produced and a mass-market magazine she launched. But mostly her triumph was this: she changed the conversation. She broke it open. She brought everyone in.
It's silly to talk about her replacement. There will be other good talk show hosts, even great ones. On November 16, Oprah devoted an hour to an interview with Sarah Palin, herself a force in the universe. Toward the end of the interview, Oprah asked Sarah if she was going to become a talk show host and be her competitor. Palin did her aw-shucks number and said, Oh, no, Oprah, you're the queen of talk. Indeed! On Friday, Oprah knocked off Sarah Palin off her perch as the No. 1 subject across talk America.
Filed Under: Woman Up

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