May 23, 2011
Oprah: The Last Broadcaster?by Ron Simon
As Oprah departs her daytime stage, the concept of broadcasting might also exit with her. Like a Johnny Carson or Walter Cronkite before her, Oprah Winfrey was able to communicate with a national audience. She brought together a very diverse audience of races, classes, and generations under her very big tent of talk and empowerment. This sweeping multicultural variety of viewers seems almost impossible these days in our digital media environment that seeks one friend at a time.
Until Oprah, it was unthinkable that daytime could be the arena of prestige and power. As we have seen from the audition tapes, Oprah was a raw talent who did not fit into any traditional roles on television. During her early days in Baltimore, she had trouble doing such conventional stuff as reading the teleprompter and fostering that robotic local TV personality. Her journey to Chicago in the early eighties proved to be her turning point. Oprah was given the freedom to improvise and use her unique narrative as the driving force of her new talk show. Almost every TV host before her was shorn of his or her personal story; Oprah relished in her own mythology. As you listen to Dennis Swanson, the television executive in Chicago who liberated the inner Oprah, what seems commonplace now, was revolutionary then.
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Image from Oprah's first broadcast.
We knew little of the private back stories of such earlier TV icons as Carson or Cronkite. They revealed little of themselves; they just did the job. But Oprah nurtured her own multi-dimensional character, worthy of a Dickens novel. Her anxiety and addiction remained part of the evolving persona over twenty-five years. No matter how many avenues of show business she conquered, she stayed in touch with that inner damaged kid. Many commentators have remarked that she could speak intimately to each member of her own audience. Her Oprah character was rich and vivid enough for millions to find facets of her persona to engage with on a daily basis.
Oprah’s journey to self-discovery also changed us. I never realized the impact of Oprah on the American society until a Finnish friend remarked that everyone in America seems so comfortable with his or her inner feelings; he said we have all mastered “Oprah speak.” There is a tremendous insight there. Oprah generated an emotional vocabulary and grammar that was certainly missing not only from television, but also the culture. She was a facilitator in the merging of our personal and public spheres. Her confessional TV valued emotional truths that went unexpressed before. This unleashing of feelings also paved the way for reality programming.
Oprah is a broadcaster who became something else. Kathryn Lofton of Yale theorized that she became “an icon of suffering, of spiritual certitude, of material hunger, and of female empowerment.” There is no university that teaches that skill set; one person talking to multitudes is hard enough these days. The question of the moment is who can replace Oprah? Right now I would guess a team of narrowcasters. The View pioneered a model where the audience can find his or her avatar among a group of distinct individuals. Why roll the dice on one super personality when truth is now emerging from the wisdom of a crowd, even in the TV studio. America has grown too diverse for one person to embody its hopes, fears, and desires. And Oprah’s kingdom has splintered off into little fiefdoms on daytime television: Dr. Oz lords over health, Nate Berkus over design, etc. It now takes many hours to receive the same enlightenment that Oprah offered in an hour.
For those who want to contemplate the impact of Oprah communally, the Paley Center hosts a viewing party of her final show on Wednesday, May 25 at 4:00 pm.
Curator, Television and Radio
Ron Simon has been a curator at The Paley Center for Media since the early 1980s. He is also an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University, New York University, and Hunter College, where he teaches courses on the history of media. Simon has written for many publications, including The Encyclopedia of Television and Thinking Outside of the Box, as well as serving as host and creative consultant of the CD-ROM Total Television. A member of the editorial board of Television Quarterly, and a judge on the George Foster Peabody committee, Simon has lectured at museums and educational institutions throughout the world. Among the numerous exhibitions he has curated are The Television of Dennis Potter; Witness to History; Jack Benny: The Television and Radio Work; and Worlds Without End: The Art and History of the Soap Opera. He also discovered such lost programs as the live Honeymooners and the only video performance of the Rat Pack.Interests:
Anybody and everything that can be transformed into a pixel.
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