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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
Photo courtesy of Oprah Winfrey
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.
1977-83 People Are Talking
1986- The Oprah Winfrey Show
1990 Brewster Place
1989 The Women of Brewster Place
1992 Overexposed (executive producer)
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
Color Purple, 1985; Native Son, 1986.
Joan. "Here Comes Oprah! From the Color Purple to TV Talk Queen."
Ms. Magazine (New York), August 1986.
Marcia Ann. "Winfrey Takes All." Ms. Magazine (New York),
Laurie L. "Oprah Winfrey: The Construction of Intimacy in the Talk
Show Setting." Journal of Popular Culture (Bowling Green,
Ohio), Spring 1993.
Barbara Grizzuti. "The Importance of Being Oprah." The New York
Times Magazine (New York), 11 June 1989.
Norman. Everybody Loves Oprah!: Her Remarkable Life Story.
New York: Morrow, 1987.
George. Oprah Winfrey: The Real Story. Secaucus, New Jersey:
P. David. Celebrity and Power. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1996.
Gloria-Jean. "'C'mon Girl': Oprah Winfrey and the Discourse of Feminine
Talk." Genders (Austin, Texas), Fall 1991.
Laura B. "Oprah Opens Up . . . ." Ebony (Chicago), October
Robert. Oprah! New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.
Mimi. Tele-Advising: Therapeutic Discourse in American Television.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
Richard. "Lady with a Calling . . . ." Time (New York), 8
also Talk Shows;
Women of Brewster Place