Friday, May 27, 2011

Flashback Friday: The Oprah Winfrey Show

This week ends the long reign of the Queen of Talk Shows. After twenty-five years on television, Oprah Winfrey is ending her show. I'm not sure what the reasons are, but I imagine that she wants to do something different. Her decision is a sad one for those who love quality shows that elevate the public conversation, but I totally understand the need to move on, especially if you believe that you have accomplished everything you set out to do and your heart is not in it anymore. Although I haven't seen her show in years (because I'm at work when its on and I don't have Tivo), there is no question that nobody did daytime talk shows like Oprah has done. She truly was "The Gold Standard" that all others failed to replicate.

When I was a kid, I remember my mom watching Phil Donahue's talk show (along with a few soap operas). I remember thinking how boring the show was: people watching Donahue talk to a guest. Based on that impression, I pretty much had a negative view of talk shows...until 1986. I can't remember if it was when I was sick, and stayed home from school or if it was during the summer months, but I was bored and watching whatever was on T.V. (I was living in Germany at the time and there was only one channel for the Americans to watch: AFN, which stands for Armed Forces Network). Instead of Donahue, there was an overweight black woman hosting a talk show. I was intrigued. I liked her personality. The guest was a pop group called The Jets, which was a group of siblings with a Samoan or Tongan heritage. This talk show host with a funny name (Oprah, of course!) kept asking them how they managed to live in a house with only one bathroom. They would talk about something and Oprah would keep coming back to the bathroom. It was that level of curiosity that intrigued me about this woman and made me like her. She was not boring like Donahue. However, in fairness to Phil Donahue, as I got older, I began to appreciate what he offered to television audiences. He was considered the king of the daytime talk show and some thought Oprah was nuts to try and compete against him.

In the fall of 1988, when I was back in the USA, Oprah made headlines when she lost weight through a diet program. Her goal was to fit into the same pair of jeans that she once wore. She walked out in front of a cheering audience, wearing her old jeans and pulling a wagon full of fat that weighed the equivalent of the amount she had lost. She remarked that she could not believe that she had carried that weight on her body for years.

Of course, that body did not last long. She returned to her old weight and even surpassed it. Her struggles with weight was an ongoing process and in 1994, she came out with a combination fitness and diet regiment with personal trainer Bob Greene. She told audiences that diet is not enough, that it takes discipline and regular exercise to keep the weight off. In the years since 1994, I think she has done a pretty good job managing her weight. In those years, as well, her brand increased in success, even as everyone seemed to have their own talk show on television.

I remember the culture shock when I returned to the U.S. in the fall of 1994 after living three years in Italy. I watched T.V. while on leave at my parents' house and could not believe the number of talk shows that populated daytime television. I think I counted about fourteen different shows, with the most popular being Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Ricki Lake, Geraldo Rivera, and others long forgotten. None of them had Oprah's class, though. Most seemed to prefer feuding guests, where chairs were always in danger of flying in the air (Geraldo once had his nose broken on his show by an unruly guest). Jerry Springer was the worst of the bunch, because he and his audience seemed to encourage fights to break out among the dysfunctional, inbred redneck guests. By contrast, Oprah was geared towards conversation / dialogue to understand one another, to learn lessons from people's lives, and to make the world a better place. She wasn't without controversies, though. Here's a few memorable ones...

In 1997, Oprah did a show about Mad Cow Disease and in her horror of learning this information, she remarked on her show, "This has stopped me cold from eating another burger!" That remark infuriated a group of cattle ranchers in Texas that they sued her in court, claiming that her influence has hurt their business. The lawsuit wasn't exactly laughed out of court, but it did make national headlines because of the absurdity. Oprah is influential, but if there is a drop in meat consumption, can she legally be held responsible? More than that, less consumption of meat is better for the environment anyway, so if Oprah's comment really did change people's consumption habits, isn't that a good thing?

Out of the trial, she became good friends with Dr. Phil, the no-nonsense counselor who tells it like it is. He became a regular on her show, dispensing marital advice that was remarkable in its brutal honesty. He didn't mince words. Thanks to his association with Oprah, he has become famous, with many books of his own and his own talk show.

In 1996, Oprah scored a major interview when John F. Kennedy, Jr. appeared on her show. He was promoting his magazine, George. What I remember most about the interview is that John said that he doesn't remember much about his father and how seeing all the photos of himself with his father (or the famous one where he salutes his father's casket), he can't tell if its an actual memory of his or one that has been imposed upon him. What he did remember about his father was that the president would call him "Sam" and he hated it. He would tell his dad, "My name's not Sam! It's John!" He said that his father loved to tease him like that.

In 2005 or 2006, another guest made an impression on Oprah. That would be the couch-abusing Tom Cruise, who was so uncharacteristically giddy about being in love with Katie Holmes that he jumped up and down on her couch like he was a teenage girl. Oprah was stunned. In the video, she had a look on her face that could only be interpreted as, "This guy is crazy!" Though the behaviour seemed a bit odd (being "in love" should not have prompted him to act that way), shortly after the airing of this episode, the public learned that Katie Holmes was pregnant with his child. That makes a little more sense why he would be so crazy excited. Though he had two adopted children with ex-wife Nicole Kidman, Katie was giving him a biological child and I can understand his enthusiasm for that.

However, the couch-jumping actually harmed Cruise's career. I don't think he has recovered from it yet. But that could be the combination of factors: couch-jumping craziness alongside a public sympathy for Katie Holmes being sucked into his lifestyle and his aggressive promotion of Scientology. The American public can no longer look at him as the quintessential All-American guy who represents the best of what America is about (that has transferred to Brad Pitt and George Clooney). He's no longer "the fortunate son" of America.

Perhaps the biggest legacy and influence Oprah has had on the American popular culture is the creation of her book club, which has made best-sellers of obscure novels. There was a time when every unknown novelist's dream was Oprah picking their novel as her reading group's choice for the month. It was the equivalent of winning the literary lottery. Book clubs weren't really in vogue when she launched this idea for her show. Now, there are all kinds of book clubs (as much as I love reading, I have not found a book club worth joining. Most of them skew heavily towards women, and I've learned that my reading interests don't necessarily coincide with the kinds that women who are part of book clubs prefer).


Oprah's Book Club actually has two parts. The first part, in the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s, Oprah generally selected books by living writers who were unknown. She did them a favour by highlighting their novels and having her loyal audience rushing out to bookstores to lap them up. Then, she had to pick Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections in the early 2000s (2002?). This novel was already a best-seller and a critically acclaimed novel, so the author didn't need Oprah's endorsement to find success. It was successful in its own right. Unlike an unknown author who welcomed Oprah's attention, Franzen actually criticized Oprah and worried that her Book Club logo on his novel would somehow lessen the prestige of his own novel. He claimed that some of her previous Book Club selections were "schmaltzy." I actually agree with his assessment. I've tried to read some of her selections and I could not get into them. Blah! Feelings got hurt and Oprah decided to do away with her book club, claiming that no good novels were being published anymore.

The hiatus did not last long, however. In 2003, she re-started her Book Club by only choosing classics, such as John Steinbeck's East of Eden, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and others. Though it may have started out as focusing only on the classics by dead authors, she did eventually select non-fiction works by living writers. The most controversial one was James Frey:


James Frey wrote a memoir about his drug addiction and attempts at recovery in a book called A Million Little Pieces, which was actually a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. He achieved some recognition for his work and it may have stayed that way if Oprah hadn't brought her endorsement of his book to major media attention. Someone started digging and it turned out that some of Frey's claims were false. As the controversy grew, Frey admitted that he had written it as a novel, but his publisher thought it would sell better as a memoir. Call it the Milli Vanilli of the literary world! So, Oprah had to call him onto her show to explain himself. He made Oprah look bad, who didn't need another controversy after Jonathan Franzen's bruhaha.

The most interesting moment of synchronicity that I experienced with an Oprah Book Club selection was in 2009, when I saw paperback copies of Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth in a clearance sale at Powell's City of Books. I decided to buy a copy and read it. The bookstore had stacks of the book on sale at a bargain price of $7.98 or so. Not bad. I bought it just in time, though. Shortly afterwards, within a week or two, Oprah had selected that book as her club's next read. Like any good bookstore, Powell's no longer sold it at that price and sold them at the regular price as printed on the back cover (the full price)! Oprah single-handedly saved a book from remainder bin clearance sales! It was a great book club choice, though. I didn't get to see her discussion show on that book, but I was definitely interested in what she might've had to say about the ideas in that book. Very worth reading and discussing. Out of all of the books Oprah has selected in her book club, I would say that A New Earth is probably her most relevant choice. As I read it, I was dealing with the dramas of "School Marm" and this book helped me understand why School Marm behaved the way she did.

The Oprah brand extended to a monthly magazine. I can't remember what year, but Oprah devoted a season of her show to "Living Your Best Life." She swore off of the kind of guests that other talk shows loved to book. She wanted to make a deeper impact on her viewers, by inspiring them into making better choices and living life of purpose. Her feel good pop spirituality is not without its critics, though. The cynical materialists and the evangelicals seem to have a problem with her message of living life with gratitude, focusing on the positive, and embracing a universalist view of spirituality.

If that weren't enough, Oprah used her enormous wealth and influence to open up a school for girls in South Africa. Though there has also been controversy with this (particularly allegations of sexual abuse), I think its a great thing overall. Critics are just looking for faults, but is she to blame for what goes on in the school? She's not the administrator, only the founder and financier. The girls who get educated there have a chance to succeed in life. This is giving at its best.

Perhaps the biggest legacy of all (even more than her Book Club, magazine, and girl's school) is her endorsement of Barack Obama as president in 2008. It was the first time that she made a political endorsement. In 2000, she only invited both Gore and Bush onto her show, but she did not endorse either candidate. She just let them tell their stories and let her audience decide for themselves who they liked better.

Shortly after Barack Obama had won the Illinois Senate seat in 2004, Oprah invited him on her show. What I remember most about that show is that she had asked him about a laugh line from the show Will and Grace, where Grace was in the shower and claiming that Obama could "Barack her world!" Obama said that his wife did not find that line amusing. When Oprah endorsed Obama for president, I wasn't surprised. Both have made Chicago, Illinois their adoptive home. Both have unusual names with an "O". They are the same race. And as one African American intellectual writer had claimed in a book, both Oprah and Obama are what he calls "bargainers" (which is the belief that an African American person would make an unspoken "bargain" with white America that they would not talk about controversial racial issues if white America won't hold their race against them). I don't agree with that view, though. Neither Oprah nor Obama would be successful if they made a life hating white people or looking for a racial motive everywhere.

I read an article that made a convincing case that Oprah made Obama presidential. I can't remember who wrote the article, though I think it might be by the writer of the Freakonomics book. The article claimed that a lot of middle class white women watch Oprah, especially in Iowa. Without Oprah's endorsement, many might have voted for John Edwards or Hillary Clinton in the Iowa Caucus. Because Oprah has enormous influence and credibility, she made it feel "safe" to vote for Obama. Without Iowa's win, Obama might not have gained the momentum he needed. Hillary squeaked out a win in New Hampshire over Obama, but had John Edwards won Iowa, the dynamic of the Democratic primary could have been far different. The Oprah Effect is worth looking into. Its hard to imagine what the outcome might have been without her endorsement, because Obama's Iowa victory opened the door to victories elsewhere. As we saw in 2004, Iowans killed Howard Dean's campaign, who was leading in all the major polls. In 2008, John Edwards was expected to win the Iowa Caucus. So, Thank You, Oprah for saving us from that disaster!

Recently, Oprah launched her own network. I guess the Oxygen Network wasn't good enough. I haven't been able to access OWN, so I have no idea what kinds of shows it has on, but hopefully its consistent with her life's mission to inspire people to live their best lives. The world needs more positive programing.

Above is the best photo I've come across that show Oprah as how I see her. She's a dynamic woman who I actually find to be beautiful. That's the cool thing about someone with a beautiful soul. She may or may not be "physically beautiful" (beauty is in the eye of the beholder), but whenever I see her, I can definitely see beauty because her beauty is reflective of the shine from her inner soul. By contrast, some find Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann physically beautiful, but whenever I see pictures of that woman, I can't see her beauty at all. Bachmann appears ugly to me, and I'm not saying that to spite. Just wanted to make the point that the way one develops one's soul can have a huge impact on the way others see their physical selves...to the point where an average or okay looking person can appear more beautiful than they really are, whereas someone with an unattractive soul can make their outer appearance to be ugly or unattractive.

The world needs more people like Oprah Winfrey! I wish I could have seen more of her shows over the years. Maybe she can put them all on the Internet and index them, so I can click on the ones that feature the topics of interest to me. I have no idea what she intends to do next, but I hope she's aiming bigger. She is the wealthiest woman in America and has the influence and credibility to make a huge impact for our country. I'd love to see her get involved in helping to lead America towards a more spiritual culture and away from the crass materialism it embraces today. I'm certain that in her absence from daytime television, others will rush in to fill the void. However, they are merely imitators. There will never be another Oprah, just as there will never be another Michael Jackson. He was the King of Pop and Oprah is the Queen of Television. Best wishes in your future endeavors!

As a treat, here's a video of the first song I heard by The Jets back in 1986. I wonder if Oprah ever got her answer about how this family lived in a house with only one bathroom. Hopefully the members of that family had smaller families of their own when they all grew up. The song title is very appropriate for Oprah: "You Got It All"!

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