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What Oprah wrought

With her long-running talk show, Oprah Winfrey has made herself a force in television and popular culture.

May 24, 2011
  • Oprah Winfrey waves to fans in Chicago while taping an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in September 2009.
Oprah Winfrey waves to fans in Chicago while taping an episode of "The… (Kiichiro Sato / Associated…)

On Wednesday, the final episode of Oprah Winfrey's long-running TV talk show will air. In the 25 years since the show has been nationally syndicated, Winfrey — or, really, Oprah, since that is how she is globally known — has made herself a singular force in television and the popular culture. In that period, she has topped the daytime ratings as talk show host, earned an Oscar nomination for her acting, become a producer, launched her own magazine (which features her on the cover each month), catapulted the book sales of any author — dead or alive — that she favors with an Oprah's Book Club selection, and helped get the first black man elected president of the United States.

Not that she's retiring to her Montecito estate. She is turning her attention to her 5-month-old cable network, OWN, an ambitious venture that has had a rocky start.

Winfrey is not a great journalist, actress (despite the Oscar nod for her role in "The Color Purple"), literary critic or political strategist. Instead, she is an extraordinary self-creation — as many powerful people are — who helped forge a sea change in the way the culture looks at black women in particular and black people in general.

Of course, she is only one small piece of the huge cultural shift in attitudes about race that the U.S. has been undergoing for more than half a century. Still, the crossover embrace of her show — even the cultish devotion to her and her talk show aphorisms — has helped make it utterly normal for a mainstream audience to accept black professionals, not just performers. Along the way, she arguably laid some of the social groundwork for a black president.

And she did it in the prosaic, often middlebrow realm of the daytime talk show. She proved canny at laying bare the problems of life that beset us all and became a kind of life coach extraordinaire. Never resorting to clownish antics, she carried herself with a sophisticated aura (few could afford those diamond earrings she wears in the afternoon) but also projected empathy. Most famously, she continually shared her struggles with the battle that so many Americans seem obsessed with — weight.

All of that proved to the world — if people doubted it — that a black woman could be charismatic, immensely wealthy, loved and feared.

Without Oprah, the landscape of daytime broadcast TV is overwhelmingly white. And surprisingly, most of the on-air hosts and main personalities on Oprah's cable network are white as well. Oprah herself is expected to have some kind of on-air presence, but more diversity would be even better. Surely Oprah, of all people, should be able to make that happen.

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