WINFREY, OPRAH

U.S. Talk Show Host

Oprah Winfrey, known primarily as the nationally and internationally syndicated American talk show host of The Oprah Winfrey Show, has successfully charted and navigated a career that has built on the television industry as a form of public therapy. The proliferation of talk-show programs in 1980s and 1990s that have been constructed around the public airing of private trials can be directly attributed to the success of Oprah Winfrey and, a decade earlier, Phil Donahue. It is a genre of television that blends the private and the public into a public confessional. On Oprah Winfrey both ordinary people and guest celebrities are there to reveal their inner truths. And it is these revelations which create in the audience the dual sentiments that have been critical to the success of Oprah: there is a voyeuristic pleasure in hearing about what is normally hidden by others, and there is the cathartic sensation that the public revelation will lead to social betterment.

One of the key features of Oprah Winfrey's television persona is that her own private life has been an essential element of her talk-show format of public therapy. Her poor black background and her past and current problems with child abuse, men, and weight have made Oprah an exposed public personality on television and have allowed her loyal audience to feel that they "know" her quite well. This televisual familiarity is part of the power of Oprah Winfrey.

Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi in 1954 and was raised solely by her paternal grandmother for her first six years on a rural pig farm. Her now famous name Oprah was in fact a misspelling of the Biblical name Orpah. Throughout her childhood and adolescence she moved between her father's residence in Nashville and her mother's in Milwaukee. By her early teens she had settled more permanently in Nashville and it was there that she developed her first contacts with broadcasting.

Her path into the profession was partially connected to her success in two beauty pageants. At 16, Winfrey was the first black Miss Fire Prevention for Nashville. From that position and her obvious and demonstrated abilities in public speaking, she was invited to be the newsreader on a local black radio station, WVOL. Later, she maintained her public profile by winning the Miss Black Tennessee and gained a scholarship to Tennessee State University. In her final year of studying speech, drama and English, Winfrey was offered a position as co-anchor on the television news program of the CBS affiliate, WVTF. She has described her early role model for news broadcasting as Barbara Walters.

Although not entirely comfortable with her role as news journalist/anchor, Winfrey gained a more lucrative co-anchor position at WJZ, the ABC affiliate in Baltimore in 1977. She struggled for several months in the position--her greatest weaknesses derived from not reading the newscopy before airtime and from her penchant for extensive ad libbing. She was pulled from the anchor position and given the role of co-hosting a morning chat show, People are Talking. Able to be relaxed and natural on air, Winfrey excelled in this position. By the end of her run, her local morning talk show had transformed into a program dealing with more controversial issues and Winfrey's presence helped the show outdraw Donahue, the nationally syndicated talk show in the local Baltimore market.

In 1983, she followed her associate producer Debra Di Maio to host A.M. Chicago, a morning talk show on Chicago station WLZ-TV. By 1985 the name was changed to The Oprah Winfrey Show and again the program was drawing a larger audience than Donahue in the local Chicago market. Winfrey also gained a national presence through her Oscar nominated role in Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple (1986). The large television program syndicator King World, realizing the earning potential of Winfrey, took over production of her show in 1986 and reproduced the daily program for the national market. Within weeks of the launch in September 1986, the Oprah Winfrey Show became the most watched daytime talk show in the United States.

The deal struck with King World in 1986 instantly made Winfrey the highest paid performer in the entertainment industry with estimated earnings from the program of $31 million in 1987. She has continued to be one of the wealthiest women in the entertainment industry and has used that power to establish her own production company, Harpo Productions. Harpo's presence on television has been evident in a number of arenas. First, in dramatic programming, Harpo produced the miniseries The Women of Brewster Place (1989) and the follow-up situation-dramacomedy Brewster Place (1990). Winfrey both starred in and produced these programs. She has produced and hosted several prime time documentaries, one specifically on children and abuse. In recent years, she has supplanted Barbara Walters in securing one-off interviews with key celebrities. Her prime time interview of Michael Jackson in February 1993 (ABC) succeeded at garnering a massive television audience both nationally and internationally. Similarly her prime-time interview with basketball star Michael Jordan in October 1993 reaffirmed Winfrey's omnipresence and power in television.

The centrepiece of both her wealth and public presence continues to be her daily talk show which is also broadcast successfully internationally. Borrowing the "run and microphone thrust" device from Phil Donahue she makes the television audience part of the performance. With this and other techniques, Oprah has managed to create both an interesting public forum that transforms the feminist position that "the personal is political" into a vaguely political television program. Themes range from the bizarre, ("Children Who Abuse Parents") to the titillating ("How Important is Size in Sex?"), from the overtly political ("Women of the Ku Klux Klan") to the personal trials and tribulations of her own weight loss/gain and the "problems" of fellow celebrities. The sensational quality to the topics has often been cited to discount the seriousness of her show and others. But Winfrey has been a central part of this televisual transformation of public debate in the United States. Partly through her own public revelations of her private battles and her capacity to move from the serious to the humorous, Oprah Winfrey has aided in the expansion of television as public therapy.

-David P. Marshall


Oprah Winfrey
Photo courtesy of Oprah Winfrey

OPRAH WINFREY. Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, U.S.A., 29 January 1954. Educated at Tennessee State University, B.A. in Speech and Drama, 1987. Began career as news reporter for WVOL Radio, Nashville, 1971-72; reporter, news anchorperson, WTVF-TV, Nashville, 1973-76; news anchorperson, WJZ-TV, Baltimore, 1976-77; host, morning talk show, People Are Talking, 1977-83; host, talk show, WLS-TV, Chicago, 1984; host, The Oprah Winfrey Show, locally broadcast in Chicago, 1985-86, nationally syndicated, since 1986; received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for dramatic film debut in The Color Purple, 1985; owner and producer, Harpo Productions, since 1986; moved to television acting with Brewster Place miniseries on ABC, 1989; host, series of television specials, including Oprah: Behind the Scenes,from 1992. Recipient: Woman of Achievement Award, National Organization of Women, 1986; Emmy Awards, 1987, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1995; named Broadcaster of the Year, International Radio and TV Society, 1988; America's Hope Award, 1990; Industry Achievement Award, Broadcast Promotion Marketing Executives/Broadcast Design Association, 1991; Image Awards, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992; Entertainer of the Year Award, NAACP, 1989; CEBA Awards, 1989, 1990, and 1991. Address: Oprah Winfrey Show, 110 North Carpenter Street, Chicago, Illinois 60607, U.S.A.

TELEVISION SERIES

1977-83 People Are Talking
1986- The Oprah Winfrey Show
1990 Brewster Place

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1989 The Women of Brewster Place
1992 Overexposed (executive producer)

TELEVISION SPECIALS

1991-93 ABC Afterschool Special (host, supervising                                                    producer)
1992 Oprah: Behind the Scenes (host, supervising                                                 producer)
1993 Michael Jackson Talks . . . to Oprah: 90 Prime-
        Time Minutes with the King of Pop

FILMS

The Color Purple, 1985; Native Son, 1986.

FURTHER READING

Barthel, Joan. "Here Comes Oprah! From the Color Purple to TV Talk Queen." Ms. Magazine (New York), August 1986.

Gillespie, Marcia Ann. "Winfrey Takes All." Ms. Magazine (New York), November 1988.

Haag, Laurie L. "Oprah Winfrey: The Construction of Intimacy in the Talk Show Setting." Journal of Popular Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), Spring 1993.

Harrison, Barbara Grizzuti. "The Importance of Being Oprah." The New York Times Magazine (New York), 11 June 1989.

King, Norman. Everybody Loves Oprah!: Her Remarkable Life Story. New York: Morrow, 1987.

Mair, George. Oprah Winfrey: The Real Story. Secaucus, New Jersey: Carol, 1994.

Marshall, P. David. Celebrity and Power. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Mascariotte, Gloria-Jean. "'C'mon Girl': Oprah Winfrey and the Discourse of Feminine Talk." Genders (Austin, Texas), Fall 1991.

Randolph, Laura B. "Oprah Opens Up . . . ." Ebony (Chicago), October 1993.

Waldron, Robert. Oprah! New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

White, Mimi. Tele-Advising: Therapeutic Discourse in American Television. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Zoglin, Richard. "Lady with a Calling . . . ." Time (New York), 8 August 1988.

 

See also Talk Shows; Women of Brewster Place