SouthCoast Salutes as Oprah Signs Off
May 25, 2011
by: Alexis Hauk
South Coast Today
From a wagon full of fat to a couch full of Tom Cruise, Oprah has seeped into our cultural memory like a low-fat pat of butter on the gluten-free national pancake.
Today, Oprah (Winfrey, the least necessary last name of modern time) will bid a final farewell to her quarter-century-old daytime TV show after having interviewed no fewer than 30,000 guests. They've included five presidents (Carter, Clinton, both Bushes and Obama), the survivors of the Jonestown massacre and the late Elizabeth Taylor. They've also included burn victims and struggling single moms.
Besides Oprah's "BFF" Gayle King, the most frequent guests on her show were comedian Chris Rock, with 25 appearances, and singer/heart-pounder Celine Dion, with 27 visits.
Although Lady Gaga bumped Oprah down to the No. 2 spot this year on Forbes' annual "Celebrity 100" list, it's hard to imagine Gaga lasting as long, or casting as wide a net, as the Oprah media dynasty. To top it off, Oprah is only 57, just two years beyond where her main demographic begins. (She's most popular with white women over age 55, according to stats collected by NBC News in 2007.)
"In a way, she's an amazing person herself, because here's somebody who's black, with a mostly white audience; single, with a mostly married audience; childless, with an audience of women who are raising children," says Kara Miller, a professor at UMass Dartmouth, WGBH contributor and author of "Culture Club" on boston.com. "And she's done an amazing job of going over all those barriers."
Shelly Murphy, a communications instructor at Bristol Community College, points to Oprah's mastery of "convergence": "She really created a brand - this Oprah brand - that she used in many different ways in the media."
The Oprah branding includes a magazine, television station, charitable endeavors such as the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa and, of course, her book club, launched in 1996.
The Oprah stamp of approval boosted sales and profiles of respected authors who made the cut, such as Toni Morrison and Barbara Kingsolver. But it was also the source of controversy over the years.
Remember "The Corrections" author Jonathan Franzen's clumsy statement that "she's picked some good books ... but she's picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe myself"; or James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" fiasco? (Both authors have since made amends with Oprah on camera).
Controversy aside, Mimi Powell, manager of Baker Books in Dartmouth, has nothing but rave reviews for the program: "We had customers coming in who had never been in bookstores, people who were very anxious to find out what it was she was talking about," she said. "It was great; she would announce a new title and the phone would start ringing. ... And it went like that for months and months and months."
Patricia Leavy, an associate professor of sociology at Stonehill College in Easton, believes Oprah's focus on her own weight struggles and body image have helped "dispel the myth that women can have it all and it will come easily - even Oprah, with all of her power and success, still has areas of personal struggle and growth. This makes her highly relatable to women across the country."
The Oprah Show also opened the door for discussing taboo topics such as sexual abuse and mental illness. According to Murphy, Oprah "has brought issues to a much broader audience that might not have made it into the average person's conversation."
"I think that she kind of pioneered a style of self-empowerment," says Miller. "(Oprah) has created that culture in which your own trials and tribulations are out there. She was part of an evolution in news where people's private lives have become so important. You can see this just in the coverage of (actor and Gov. Arnold) Schwarzenegger as opposed to coverage of JFK."
At a time when soap operas are going off the air and daytime television is in flux, Oprah's patented mix of news and entertainment may continue, according to Miller, with CNN's Anderson Cooper (who will head a daytime show this fall) or someone like Katie Couric.
"We're beginning to see the news person as star. ... It all capitalizes on power of personality."
It seems SouthCoast viewers may be handling the transition gracefully. In an email, New Bedford resident Carolyn Caughman wrote, simply, "I believe that there is nothing 'Final' with Oprah."
The last show airs at 4 p.m. today on ABC.
For more information, contact Communications and Media Relations at 508-565-1321.