'Oprah Winfrey Show' ends, but Oprah's legacy lives on

With the finale of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ on Wednesday, critics are debating the real legacy of the woman who transformed the daily talk show from a tabloid sideshow into a national self-help platform.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
In this May 17 photo, Oprah Winfrey acknowledges fans during a star-studded double-taping of 'Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular,' in Chicago. The final episode of 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' was taped in Chicago on Tuesday, May 24, and will air Wednesday, May 25.
Paul Beaty/AP
Members of the studio audience cheer for a television camera while they wait outside Harpo Studios before the final taping of 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' in Chicago, on Tuesday, May 24, and will air Wednesday, May 25.

Oprah Winfrey winds up her role as daily TV host Wednesday, but she is not so much leaving a job as reinventing herself – again. For while her syndicated show is ending its 25-year run, the billionaire media mogul is already up to her eyeballs in her next venture, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), the cable channel that launched in January.

Fans are mourning the loss of their daily “Oprah Winfrey Show” fix, while critics are debating the real legacy of the woman who transformed the daily talk show from a tabloid sideshow into a national self-help platform.

Ms. Winfrey herself is busy showing what has turned the impoverished young girl from Mississippi into a classic, American icon. “She is the great American story,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “Oprah’s story is the traditional, rags-to-riches journey full of supersized hyperbole,” he says, adding that America is steeped in the mythology of the makeover.

This is a country with a huge psychological and physical appetite for self-redefinition, “and Oprah fits right into that story line,” Mr. Thompson says.

Winfrey's show and success is the black female version of author Horatio Alger, says David Canton, director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity at Connecticut College in New London. “An African-American woman captured the hearts and minds of middle- and upper-middle-class whites,” he says via e-mail. “Focusing on common themes that affect all people, whites were able to ‘look beyond’ her race.”

Mr. Canton adds, “Oprah has donated millions to charity and has provided employment opportunities for many.”

The daytime diva’s devotion to showing viewers how to be their best selves inspired millions of women – and men – to make changes in their lives. But she’s also demonstrated what real media power means in the 21st century, says Leonard Shyles, communications professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

“[Media personalities] all want to own their own fiefdom,” he says, adding, “This is the real lesson Oprah has taught us: She refused to sell her show to the people who syndicated it, and she became a billionaire.”

Her influence extends well beyond her daily talk show, says Kathleen Rooney, author of “Reading With Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America.”

“[Oprah’s Book Club] certainly changed publishing in that it vastly increased the cultural capital of serious mid-list fiction. And although it's hard to quantify, I think there's evidence to suggest that it changed the reading habits of many Americans, including Americans who didn't particularly care about ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ ” she says via e-mail. “It got people talking about and recommending to friends particular books and kinds of books that wouldn't have been otherwise.”

Not everyone is sad to see the last of Winfrey on the daily broadcast airwaves. "The end of Oprah is only the start of the era she began of unabashed self-obsession and public confession of 'private' sorrows, traumas, and failures,” says David Greven, a professor at Connecticut College who specializes in film, television, and pop culture.

“While she is to be commended for her promotion of reading and tolerance, her chief legacy is the era of self-promotion,” he says in an e-mail.

But Winfrey is a rare breed, says Robbie Blinkoff, anthropologist and founder of Context-Based Research Group in Baltimore.

“She is what I call a creative, social spirit,” he says, “someone who inspires hope and change.” As audiences for media messages continue to splinter as they look for increasingly niche content, he says, these sorts of high-profile individuals will be less and less likely to emerge.

“People don’t realize how much she has touched our culture, how intimate and personal her impact has been and how much it will be missed when her daily show is gone,” Mr. Blinkoff says. On the other hand, he adds, “she isn’t retiring; she is just moving into a new venture.”

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