The queen of TV talk shows, Oprah Winfrey, ends her daily program Wednesday after a 25-year run. While many viewers will miss the comfort and guidance that her show offered, Oprah’s exit from network television isn’t really a loss.
Rather, it simply opens a space for others to feed the American diet for self-help advice, but in new ways. The post-Oprah gurus of “yes, you can” optimism will simply build on her success, just as she built her “O” empire on the works of earlier motivational figures.
The self-help movement in the United States goes way back, and it’s always evolving. Its roots lie with the New England Puritans, who saw themselves as the chosen people ever in need of reform in order to be a model for others. Ben Franklin offered up advice in "Poor Richard’s Almanack." The Declaration of Independence declared a right to the pursuit of happiness. Horatio Alger told tales of boys made good by their own efforts. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of self-enlightenment.
In the 20th century, the pace picked up with books like Dale Carnegie’s "How to Win Friends and Influence People." The 1960s and the “Me Generation” brought an explosion of “self actualization” through books, broadcasts, and seminars.
Oprah’s strongest antecedent may be the consciousness-raising groups of would-be feminists during the '60s. Just as she liberated herself from an abusive and poor upbringing, she sought to help others find power within themselves to overcome doubt, fear, and sadness. She became the high priestess of a secular spirituality.
The end of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” may simply be her way of acknowledging that she has succeeded. In Wednesday's show, she could repeat one of her favorite lines from the Wizard of Oz, when Glinda the Good Witch tells Dorothy: “You always had the power.”
There is a classic, ironic dilemma for those who are seen as dispensers of wisdom. When is enough enough?
After more than 5,000 shows, Oprah was wise enough to call it quits, at least in the big top of network TV, while she now focuses on her new cable TV channel, OWN. In leaving the bright spotlight of daily talk shows, she only confirms that she was needed for a certain time in American history and no more.
If many of her viewers still want her for more advice, they'll have to pay for it on cable.