1 9 8 6 – 2 0 1 1 (USA)
When Oprah Winfrey rose to national syndication success in 1986 by challenging Phil Donahue in major markets around the USA (and winning ratings victories in many of these markets) she did not change the format of the audience participation talk show. That remained essentially as Donahue had established it twenty years before.
What changed was the cultural dynamics of this kind of show and that in turn was a direct reflection of the person who hosted it.
The ratings battle that ensued in 1986 was between a black woman raised by a religious grandmother and strict father within the fold of a black church in the South against a white, male, liberal, Catholic Midwesterner who had gone to Notre Dame and been permanently influenced by the women’s movement.
As Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s colour barrier four decades earlier, Oprah Winfrey broke the colour line for national television talk show hosts in 1986.
She became one of the great rags-to-riches stories of the 1980s (by the early 90s People Weekly was proclaiming her “the richest woman in show business” with an estimated worth of $200 million), and as Arsenio Hall and Bob Costas ended their runs on television in the early 1990s, it became clear that Oprah Winfrey had staying power.
She remained one of the few prominent talk show hosts of the 1980s to survive within the cluttered talk show landscape of the mid-1990s.
Several factors contributed to this success. For one thing, Winfrey had a smart management team and a huge national marketing campaign to catapult her into competition with Donahue. The national syndication deal had been worked out by Winfrey’ representative, attorney-manager Jeffrey Jacobs, and King World’s marketing plan was a classic one.
Executives at King World felt the media would pounce on “a war with Donahue” so they created one. The first step was to send tapes of Oprah’s shows to “focus groups” in several localities to see how they responded. The results were positive. The next step was to show tapes to selected small network alliance stations under a single owner. These groups would be offered exclusive broadcast rights.
As the reactions began to come in, King World adjusted its tactics. Rather than making blanket offers, they decided to open separate negotiations in each city and market.
The gamble paid off. Winfrey’s track record proved her a “hot enough commodity” to win better deals through individual station negotiation.
To launch Winfrey on the air King World kicked off a major advertising campaign. Media publications trumpeted Oprah’s ratings victories over Donahue in Baltimore and Chicago.
The “Donahue-buster” strategy was tempered by Winfrey herself, who worked hard not to appear too arrogant or conceited.
When asked about head-on competition with Donahue she replied that in a majority of markets she did not compete with him directly and that while Donahue would certainly remain “the king,” she just wanted to be “a part of the monarchy.”
By the time The Oprah Winfrey Show went national in September of 1986, it had been signed by over 180 stations – less than Donahue’s 200-plus but approaching that number.
Cultural issues also featured prominently in Winfrey’s campaign. Winfrey’s role as talk show host was inseparable from her identity as an African American woman. Her African American heritage and roots surfaced frequently in press accounts.
One critic described her in a 1986 Spy magazine article as “capaciously built, black, and extremely noisy.”
These and other comments on her “black” style were not lost on Winfrey. She confronted the issue of race constantly and was very conscious of her image as an African American role model.
When a USA Today reporter queried Winfrey bluntly about the issue of race in August of 1986, asking her “as someone who is not pencil-thin, white, nor blonde,” how she was “transcending barriers that have hindered many in television,” Winfrey replied as follows:
“I’ve been able to do it because my race and gender have never been an issue for me. I’ve been blessed in knowing who I am, and I am a part of a great legacy. I’ve crossed over on the backs of Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Madam C.J. Walker. Because of them I can now soar. Because of them I can now live the dream”
The final episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show aired in the USA on Wednesday 25 May 2011. It was preceded by a two-part farewell special recorded at the United Center in Chicago in front of an audience of 13,000.
The two-part show featured appearances by Aretha Franklin, Tom Cruise, Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé, Tom Hanks, Maria Shriver, Will Smith, and Madonna.