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Perhaps Oprah Is Not Quite Invincible

November 10, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY

Diane Sawyer, in a fawning interview timed to coincide with the release of "Beloved," introduced Oprah Winfrey as "a woman who can pretty much do anything."

Certainly, that has appeared to be the case. Having reinvented her talk show from a much-imitated format that threw slop around with the best of them to what she now calls "change-your-life TV," Winfrey--in a business where at least 80% of everything fails--has exhibited an astonishing Midas touch. For a long time, she had but to mention a book to propel it onto bestseller lists, or lend her name to a TV movie to ensure a huge ratings hit.

No wonder, then, that those of us unmoved by "The Oprah Winfrey Show's" undeniable influence breathed a sigh of relief to see Winfrey--recently proclaimed the most powerful person in show business by a clearly star-struck Entertainment Weekly magazine--finally experience a couple of professional setbacks.

First, her film "Beloved" couldn't overcome its challenging subject matter to triumph at the box office, despite massive publicity, including what amounted to a one-hour infomercial on Winfrey's syndicated program; and then ABC's movie "David & Lisa"--the latest entry under the heretofore golden "Oprah Winfrey Presents" banner--fizzled ratings-wise versus the miniseries "The Temptations" and "Jurassic Park: The Lost World."

These slight fissures in Winfrey's armor are welcome largely because of her graduation from talk-show host to icon, from entertainer to missionary. A recent press release referred to a segment on her show "continuing Oprah's mission to help people change their lives," underscoring how the series at times passes from the realm of entertainment to homework.

As appalling as this might sound to "Oprah"-philes, aspiring to "change people's lives" through a TV show borders on the absurd. Let's face it, the primary goal of most programs is to kill people's time and keep them planted in their chairs.

At its best, the medium can enlighten, amuse, entertain and educate in the process. Yet "change-your-life TV" embodies the marketing genius that has accompanied Winfrey's ascension from a talk-show host--lumped in with Phil, Sally, Jerry and Jenny--to a cultural guru.

The slogan, in fact, feels calculated to rationalize time spent in front of the tube as an investment, not a waste. It says, in essence, "Yes, you are helping yourself by tuning in. You're not being a couch potato, you're taking steps on the road to a better you."

What's most annoying is that this message of self-actualization often gets delivered amid a healthy dose of self-promotion, demonstrated by use of the show to promote "Beloved" and Winfrey's ABC movies, as well as stars who drop in to dispense their own life-changing wisdom while conveniently plugging their latest projects.

According to Vicki Abt, a Penn State University sociology professor who wrote the book "Coming After Oprah" as well as a 1994 essay about talk shows that preceded "Oprah's" moral conversion, the show has gone from "one extreme to the other. What's wrong with moderation? Why do you have to go from being salacious to 'I'm going to change your life'?"

Even with ratings down substantially from their heyday, "Oprah" remains daytime's queen where it counts most. Jerry Springer's blend of circus freak show and wrestling scares off many advertisers; by contrast, "Oprah" is an enormous money machine, highlighted by Winfrey's agreement to extend the show through 2002, receiving a minimum of $150 million from distributor King World for those two additional years.

Winfrey delivered major successes for ABC last year with "The Wedding" and "Before Women Had Wings," but Kate Forte, president of the host's Harpo Films, stressed that the emphasis has always been on artistry, not ratings.

"We don't think of ourselves as having the Midas touch or the golden touch. I don't approach material, and Oprah doesn't encourage me to approach material, with that kind of result in mind," Forte said. "We're proud of every single movie that we've done. I don't think anybody can find fault with the quality, the ability, the passion or the vision."

Susan Lyne, ABC's executive vice president in charge of movies and miniseries, acknowledged the network was disappointed by tune-in for "David & Lisa," and the subject matter--a romance between two teenagers in a mental institution--"might have been a little tough for that night." Still, she added that she was "ecstatic" with the production and didn't see evidence of a backlash toward Winfrey's empire.

"I don't think people stayed away from it because they think Oprah is being too earnest right now, because all her films have been about something. She doesn't play it safe," Lyne said.

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