Friday, November 20, 2009

Oprah Going Out

Oprah Winfrey announced the end of her talk show today - it will end on September 9, 2011, after 25 years on the air - and she said she plans to start her own cable television network. Her OWN cable TV network, that is; it will be called the Oprah Winfrey Network. What will the channel's focus be? I think the name says it all.
Oprah Winfrey ought to be commended for establishing herself as powerful media mogul and providing a role model for black women, but apart from her endorsement of Barack Obama for the Presidency, she leaves a mixed record at best. Early editions of her show touched on the sensationalistic stories of the "lesbian nuns ate my Buick" variety, as she was competing with noted tabloid documentarian Geraldo Rivera and an increasingly desperate Phil Donahue. Later, Winfrey claimed to have been a victim of every serious offense and violation that was ever committed against women. Moreover, her talk show established a personality cult built around baring one's feelings in inopportune circumstances.
On the other hand, she did give away Pontiac G6s to everyone in her audience once. Damn, I'm going to miss that car.
All right, I'm being facetious. She did promote several authors on her book club segment, and she also called attention to the great Toni Morrison. But even in that example, there are problems. There was the James Frey fiasco, in which she endorsed a memoir that proved to be made up - and a reputation (Frey's) was broken into . . . a million little pieces. Oprah was right to give him the third degree over it, but couldn't she have had the veracity of Frey's story - not to mention Frey himself - checked out somehow before she let all this happen? As for Toni Morrison, well, Oprah produced the 1998 movie version of Beloved to bring Morrison to a wider audience, but then she had herself cast in it. Despite good reviews, the movie was a flop, which was largely blamed on overhype. Well, Oprah did have herself cast in it - what did people expect?
Oprah Winfrey's talk show began as a local news program in Chicago, and her blurring of the line as a serious talk show host and as an entertainer always perplexed me. On the one hand, she did some terrific work exposing unsavory practices in the meat industry and withstood a lawsuit against her for it. Paradoxically, she tried to be a movie star. Mike Wallace had straddled the line between entertainment and journalism before deciding to focus on the latter -he'd been a game show host and a stage actor beforehand - but Oprah never seemed to make up her mind on which direction she wanted to take. She somehow managed, amazingly, to find credibility with her overwhelmingly female audience despite her split-personality media career. And while I admire her for all the schools she started in Africa, it seemed vulgar of her to be out in the forefront of the effort. She gave many folks the impression that she wanted to be aggrandized for doing so many wonderful things . . . just like when she gave away those Pontiacs.
Her endorsement of Barack Obama for the Presidency may have been her biggest coup, because it probably got Obama nominated; getting elected was Obama's own job. She was called a traitor to her gender, but it the end it might have helped turn the tide for Obama in the primaries against Hillary Clinton.
So why don't I offer an opinion about Oprah one way or the other? Because I know that coming down on either side will stir up a hornet's nest. I may be noncommittal, but I'm not stupid!
Oprah Winfrey has plenty of money, and she knows when it's time to quit. I don't know what kind of programming OWN will show, but since she doesn't have to worry about pleasing advertisers so much, I doubt we'll see any alien abduction specials.
And it will probably last longer than the Pontiac G6.

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