Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Why Oprah Matters
Oprah has taped the last episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and said goodbye to her fans as she moves from her daily talk show to concentrating on her OWN network and other projects.
Why should we care?
For 25 years, Oprah has been coming into our living rooms and kitchens, interviewing guests on the topics of the day, and sharing her views, but most importantly, sharing herself.
When Oprah first went into national syndication, her show wasn’t much different from Donahue’s or Geraldo’s. And Jerry Springer had not yet gone to the dark side. She had the usual shows like “Librarians Gone Wild” and “I’m in love with a librarian. Does that mean I have to read books?”
But it was during a program on skinheads that she had an epiphany. She didn’t want her show to be a vehicle for spreading hate, so she made a conscious decision to move away from the sensational and to use her show as a platform for good. And she has never looked back.
Why does Oprah matter?
She practically single-handedly revived the publishing industry with her Oprah’s Book Club where people reported not having read a book in years until she told them to.
She has raised over $80,000,000 with her Angel Network.
Her seal of approval has gone on countless “favorite things,” thus assuring their success: from Spanx to Miraclebody jeans to Barack Obama’s bid for the Presidency.
She launched the careers of Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Suze Orman, Rachael Ray and Nate Burkus.
She has made dreams come true with her Wildest Dreams tour, helped audience members figure out their true bra size and given Pontiac G6s to all 276 of her audience members.
But more importantly, Oprah took the talk show format and turned it into a platform for good. She exhorted us to make a difference, to be ourselves and produced shows that helped us to do that. She assured us that when we know better, we do better. She showed us that we are not products of our circumstances. The past does not define us. She did it and she made us believe we could do it too.
It was important television.
She confronted the fear of AIDS in a 1987 show where a town drained a public pool rather than allow a person with AIDS to swim there. She went to Forsyth County, Georgia, to talk to the residents about the racial hostility there.
Her shows made a difference.
Oprah tells the story of a woman who came up to her in a store and told her that she used to beat her kids. And then she watched an Oprah show about how you weren’t supposed to beat your kids. At first that didn’t make sense to her because her mother had beaten her and her mother had been beaten. But she kept watching the show and she said that Oprah had been consistent about this issue. So she said she was going to try to not beat her kids for one week. She tried it for a week and then a second week. And then she said, “Now I can’t remember how long it’s been. I don’t beat my kids anymore---and I got different kids.”
One particularly moving show was with Dr. Phil. A woman could not get over the murder of her 18 year old daughter. Dr. Phil asked her if she had ever thought of celebrating those 18 years of her life instead of mourning them. The woman said she had never thought of it like that. And then she revealed that she had planned to go home after the show and kill herself but Dr. Phil’s question had stopped her.
For me personally, it was Oprah herself that I tuned in to see every day. Oprah was like a close girlfriend for 25 years, sharing her own story which included child abuse, issues with weight and her “aha moments.” Her sincerity urged me to make a difference and to be my best self. Her programs always seemed relevant to what was going on in my life at the time. When I would share some new idea with my family about family time or how we might want to change something, my son would yell, “Mom’s been watching Oprah again.” When the change was something he didn’t like, he would cry, “I hate Oprah!”
Oprah has also been a champion of reading and libraries, even if she never did fill her audience with librarians for one of her Favorite Things shows, despite my many emails to her producers. Didn't she realize that librarians needed new cars and washers and dryers too?
Her Book Club spawned new interest in reading discussion groups and rocketed every selection to the top of bestseller lists. She boosted sales for each title from thousands to hundreds of thousands or, in many cases, millions. The publishers of Oprah’s Book Club selections distributed more than 600,000 free books to libraries.
Growing up poor, Oprah said, “Books were my path to personal freedom.”
By noting on her television show that, according to "Good Housekeeping," 77% of elementary teachers had said that children return to school reading below or at the same level because they just have been out of practice over the summer, Oprah boosted summer reading by telling her viewers that too many kids “really are taking the summer off.” She suggested that to encourage a young reader, “you have to insist on 15–30 minutes every day to read. You just do.” Winfrey credited her stepmother with having done so. “We would go to the library and would draw books every two weeks. I would take out five books, and I would have a little reading time every day. That’s what encouraged me to become a great reader. Who knew I was going to grow up to have my own book club? But you have to do that with your children, and your children need to see you reading.”
Oprah said that it is not enough to simply tell children to read, but there should be books in the house. She said, “You make a field trip of a day to the library and make a big deal out of getting your own library card. “ And try to get them hooked on a favorite author or a series, like when I was a girl it was Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski and that whole [regional United States] series by Lois Lenski.”
(The Sno-Isle Libraries Summer Reading Program begins June 1.)
In 1997, at its Annual Conference in San Francisco, the American Library Association bestowed its highest award on Oprah, Honorary Membership for life. The award citation reads: “Oprah Winfrey, through her Book Club, has done more to revitalize and promote the importance of reading among American citizens than any other public figure in recent times. Through libraries, she has helped make books available free of charge to many who might not have been able to purchase their own copies. She has refocused attention on the important role of the library in the community.”
Oprah deserves all of the accolades.
She is one of the most powerful women in the world, and she has chosen to use that power to help others. She has made TV a better place. She will be missed.
I just wish I could have been on one of those Favorite Things shows!
Did The Oprah Winfrey Show have an impact on your life?
If so, please share it with us.