Media savvy, self-involved to the point of narcissism, and both shrewd and skilled in making money from popular culture, talk show hostess and billionaire Oprah Winfrey is wrapping up 25 years of her signature television show while launching her new cable TV network. Completing the official transition from TV star to network mogul, she recently made an appearance on CNN’s Larry King Live replacement, Piers Morgan Tonight (a wreck by any standard) and spoke for herself about herself. It’s what Oprah does best, really.
I first caught her on A.M. Chicago in the 1980s, when she overtook the talk TV ratings lead from fellow Chicagoan Phil Donahue on Donahue and she gradually moved and marked a shift from ideas to personality. Where Donahue often discussed hot topics with top thinkers, Oprah did not. She was always all about Oprah, from the early forays into movies and multimedia, encouraged by sleazy Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert, to the latest empty episode of a final, vapid season of the Oprah Winfrey Show. To her credit, she brings a simple, American sensibility to the cultural issues she airs, and Oprah has brought forth many media figures such as Suze Orman, who at her best respects the making of money, and Dr. Phil McGraw, who at his best advances the idea that self matters. And she’s an example of capitalism, creating an empire based on her appeal and making billions of dollars from offering what she does as a value in trade.
Intentionally or not, 25 years of Oprah represents the dumbing down of America, a slide from Donahue’s head-scratching, searching inquiries about what matters in everyday life to celebrity couch-jumping and pitiful snatches of Oprah hair, Oprah weight, Oprah selection; the topic is always tethered to the hostess. You turned off Donahue and sat and thought about what was said. You turn off Oprah and wonder where the time went. Today’s episode featured reunited soap stars, one of whom (Michael E. Knight) came on for something like 15 seconds before he was mauled by Oprah referencing Oprah and accepting accolades from others for being 25 years of Oprah. The graying, middle-aged actor sort of sat there struggling not to suffocate, like sitting next to an over-perfumed Aunt Harriet, clocking his time and waiting for the moment to end.
Oprah’s moment goes on, with books, magazines, movies and programming of dubious value, and it usually comes back to her, the opposite of Donahue, a left-wing intellectual who sought seriously to mine and explore ideas by stimulating a thoughtful examination or at least introduction to the crucial topics of our times.
When one of the most egotistical (as against egoistic) celebrities of the 20th century finally had the spotlight all to herself, as she did during her appearance with Piers Morgan, an amateur in self-involvement compared to Oprah, there was frankly not much to like after all. Her most indelible comments during the CNN exchange came when she knocked down the rumor that she’s a lesbian, stumbling uncomfortably upon the very word. In another exchange, abuse victim Oprah boasted, and that is the word, that she has never been in mental health therapy, as if there’s something decidedly and inherently wrong with it, and she tried to bully the pathetic British interviewer by demanding to know if he had been in therapy. They looked like a couple of puffed up dilettantes caught mocking their audiences by snorting that they’d never do what they’ve been urging the little people to do. In Oprah’s case, for over 25 years.