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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Oprah's 25

In 25 years I never watched The Oprah Winfrey Show -- at least not for more than a few seconds while I was flipping channels. Nor do I recall ever watching The Phil Donoghue Show, which in many respects created the "tabloid talk show" genre.

According to Wikipedia, a number of tabloid talk shows ensued: The Jerry Springer Show, The Jenny Jones Show, The Maury Povich Show, The Montel Williams Show, Ricki Lake, The Sally Jessy Raphael Show, and finally The Tyra Banks Show. Springer and Povich gradually repositioned their shows into the trash talk genre; Jones, Williams, Lake, Raphael, and Banks moved on. But Winfrey -- who, even more than Johnny Carson, established her first name (not her last name) as a brand -- evolved both herself and her show to thrive for a remarkably long tenure.

Technology helped make these shows possible. Prior to the advent of satellite distribution and cable TV in the mid-1970s, most cities had four or fewer channels available. NBC, ABC, and CBS filled the daytime schedule with game shows and soap operas from 9 am until 3 pm, when local affiliates ran children's programming until the news hour. Some over-the-air affiliates carried non-network syndicated shows like The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffin Show, or Dinah! (Shore); but most did not. The diversity of programming made possible by technology allowed shows like Winfrey's to be aired at some time of day in virtually every market nationwide.

Winfrey capitalized on this opportunity, literally, like no one else. Martha Stewart doesn't come close. Winfrey became a social and political voice. She opened doors for Dr Phil and Rachael Ray. And of course, she overcame racial prejudice and a horrifically difficult childhood in the process. I can identify with her up-and-down weight, and I'm delighted that on the whole she has conducted herself publicly in a gracious and responsible manner.

That said, there's not enough money in the world for me to watch her last show!