Later on today, Oprah Winfrey is supposed to announce that she's closing up shop on her wildly influential daily show. The lights go out on that televisual institution in 2011, and that will be the end of a pop-cultural era.
Of course, Oprah didn't invent the genre (and she wasn't the first person to ratchet its stakes up to national prominence), but she has owned that format for much of the last two decades, using it as an amazingly powerful platform, one that has made her the most recognizable first-name celebrity on the planet.
Some credited her "book club" with almost single-handedly keeping America literate (and the publishing industry solvent), a not completely hyperbolic claim.
I probably watched about 10 to 15 episodes of the show a year, but they were some of the most riveting moments of network TV: Tom Cruise prancing around on that couch and attacking psychoanalysis; Dave Chappelle, just back from Africa, explaining why he left his own lucrative and highly successful television show; Whitney Houston admitting her bouts with drugs, alcohol and Bobby Brown; and, of course, who can forget the James Frey controversy, which was probably the beginning of the end of her book club's golden age.
Earlier this year, I watched her show with Jay-Z, and just this week, I DVR'd her Sarah Palin interview. The hour-long format makes her engagement with these folks feel so much more substantive than the five-minute packages that you get most places on TV. She has time to ask Palin all the questions you thought needed to be posed (about that infamous Katie Couric non-answer, about Levi Johnston's public attacks on her family, about her preparedness for the White House). They are all questions we've heard put to Palin before, but Oprah's space feels like a much more intimate place for the conversation.
Indeed, Winfrey's been criticized for just such would-be intimacy, especially as it informs her unprecedented crossover appeal. Is it really fair to call her a postmodern mammy-figure (as some detractors have)? That seems like a cheap shot, an overly dismissive critique that can be thrown around quite self-servingly.
Part of what makes her show so entertaining, especially when it features someone like Palin, is that she is always as famous as the person she's interviewing. Palin is one of the most sought-after guests right now, a star in national politics, and the closest thing Republicans have to an Obama-like figure. Even still, Palin seems to recognize (and defer to) the aura of Oprah. Everyone does!
Over the past few years, Oprah Winfrey has been all over the news for what she's been doing outside of her daily broadcast (that all-girls school in South Africa, her stumping for then-Senator Obama, etc.), and she plans to devote more time to her new network, which will provide her with 24 hours a day to fill, not just one.
Winfrey is also doing things like financing the new Lee Daniels film, Precious, which I have still yet to see. Ugh!
With all of these pots on the fire, Winfrey is probably betting on the fact that she'll be even more influential after they shutter the doors to her studio show. I wouldn't doubt it.