The Once and Future Oprah
Viewing early episodes of the Oprah Show is startling--they bear a striking resemblance to the shows of Jerry Springer or Maury Povitch, those epics of pathology and confrontation that brought us Baby Mama Drama, Who's the Daddy and every sensation short of (and possibly including) two headed babies (Oprah actually did air a show about separating conjoined twins). The more outlandish and dysfunctional, the better. Oprah could have continued along that same path and probably had a reasonably successful career, but it is obvious that somewhere along the line, she made an effort to do more. Wallowing in the muck and allowing us to gawk at the spectacle was not the point. Finding a way to let people understand their behavior and realize they had the power to change it for the better became her calling.
There are those who don't sing Oprah's praises. As novelists, we have certainly been part of the outcry about her absence in the conversation about the state of African American books and literature. Unleashing Dr. Phil upon us is at best a mixed blessing. Oprah could be over the top, giving cars and houses to audience members, wearing diamond earrings the size of pecans on daytime TV, loading 65 pounds of fat on a little red wagon to represent her weight (temporary) loss. But it is undeniable that Oprah, "A colored girl from Kosciusko, Mississippi," as she calls herself, with a made up name, and as we say of a character in one of our books, "A face she would grow into," showed us a new brand of television. People made changes for themselves--lost weight, built schools and dug wells, called out their abusers. They made changes for family members, for their community and for the world, because Oprah showed them that letting their light shine could allow others to see. People who had not read since they left school read books because Oprah said to. Advertisers from Dove and Target to United Airlines and Proctor & Gamble scrambled to support her causes, and reap the benefits of being associated with her and her audience. "Living Your Best Life," sounds as simplistic as a bumper sticker, but it does allow you to aim high.
Over the course of 25 years Oprah has shown generosity, good business sense and some questionable hair and wardrobe decisions. She let us see her insecurities, her foibles, and the way she has grown through the years. Now she has taken her, "Oprah Money" and founded OWN, following in the footsteps of women like Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore who sought to be more than just "talent." It is a bold step, and whether or not the network soars she has earned a place in the history of a medium and in the lives of millions of people. It is quite an accomplishment.
Now the Oprah set as we have come to know it will be dark, but surely she has taken her light with her. So long for now...