Because my elementary, middle and high schools were mere minutes from our family home — and I was, at times, a bit of a truant — Oprah Winfrey and I spent countless after-class hours together during the late ’90s and ’00s.
At first, I would tune in because she was my favorite celebrity interviewer, and I would feel a twinge of disappointment when I’d come home and find her couch occupied by someone whose faces and names I didn’t recognize. But as the years went on, the episodes about common men and women would become my favorite for the same reason that Winfrey was quickly recognized as a one-of-a-kind talent: she made you care deeply about strangers and understand experiences that weren’t your own.
Her “talk to people” vs. “talk at people” approach and the way she shined light in the darkest corners of subjects like sexual abuse and racism, made “The Oprah Winfrey Show” a unique television experience — one that presently feels absent on daytime and broadcast television. (Or anywhere on TV, really.) This, at a time when political and ideological divides could use a bridge-builder and when Americans could use a daily housecall from someone whose message has always been empathy.
If the country doesn’t need Oprah in the White House; maybe it needs her back on the talk show stage.
A ‘different’ country
“It is a tantalizing thought,” admits Mark Harvey, director of graduate programs at University of Saint Mary and author of “Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-Based Advocacy.” “There’s so many variables there. One, obviously, is: Are we living in a different country than we did when Oprah had her TV show? I think the answer’s yes.”
When Winfrey signed off her show in 2011, she explained her departure without frills. It was “just the right time,” she told TV Guide before beginning her farewell season. Always a forward-thinker, she also admitted she “wanted to leave when I felt the platform was still vital and held some kind of meaning in the hearts and minds of the audience.”
Winfrey’s prediction proved true. Since her exit, broadcast talk television no longer wields the influence it once did as people have turned to digital platforms to find conversations once reserved for a stage and a captive studio audience of 300-plus.
A heart-tugging human interest story that would have once found attention on Winfrey’s program can now reach millions thanks to a viral video. And need a layered, in-depth discussion about race? There’s a great podcast — or 10 — about that.
Politically, American viewers have also retreated to their television corners, Harvey says, including Fox News and MSNBC.
“Back then you had Republicans and Democrats and there were differences, but they weren’t in open war practically,” he says. “Could [Winfrey’s] voice compete with those other forces that are out there? I mean, that’s hard to say.”
He continues: “In order for her to have an effect against these polemic forces, she would probably have to be fairly outspoken, and may actually have to take a side one way or another and in a way, that may be really off-putting to your opposition.”
JeffriAnne Wilder, a sociologist and scholar who specializes in diversity, race relations and women’s empowerment, says today’s television viewers are searching for so-called confirmation bias.
“We just want to hear someone who agrees with what we have to say,” she says. “We aren’t necessarily looking for or searching out perspectives that are different from ours.”
For the record, people across the political spectrum generally like Winfrey.
Winfrey claimed at a 2007 rally for then-candidate Barack Obama in Des Moines, Iowa, that she has historically voted for “as many Republicans as Democrats.”
What helped Winfrey avoid the perception of taking sides during her show’s run was her ability to be “a simultaneous convener, connector, but also an agitator,” according to Wilder.
“I think she presses her audience — whether or not they agree with her — to be accountable for what their perspective is,” she says. “I think she does push her audience in a way that’s very distinctive from anyone else who has graced the talk show stage.”
Winfrey similarly challenged her guests, and did so again just a few weeks ago when the mogul found herself commanding a crowd for a television special called “After Neverland,” a discussion about the HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland.”
In the special, which one could imagine being an episode of her former talk show, Winfrey spoke with Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men whose allegations of sexual abuse by Michael Jackson were the subject of the four-hour documentary. (The Jackson family has disputed all the allegations and condemned the film as a “public lynching.”)
Though Winfrey herself became the target of backlash from Jackson’s defenders for participating in the special, to her credit, she asked tough questions of her subjects about whether money was a motivator in telling their stories and why the film didn’t feature an interview with anyone appearing in the late singer’s defense.
Winfrey, who has been open about her own history with sexual violence, also made it clear why she was there.
“For me, this moment transcends Michael Jackson,” Winfrey said before a studio audience of sexual abuse survivors. “It is much bigger than any one person. This is a moment in time that allows us to see this societal corruption. It’s like a scourge on humanity. If it gets you, our audience, to see how it happens, then some good would have come of it.”
Indeed, the world has changed since Winfrey left daytime, but there is still good that could come from the new conversations she could have back in front of a broad audience.
The question Wilder poses, however: Has the way in which people engage with each other shifted to a point where that Oprah magic wouldn’t necessarily work today?
When “The Oprah Winfrey Show” went off the air, it was one year before Facebook became a publicly traded company, Instagram was only a year old, and Netflix wouldn’t release it’s first original content series, “House of Cards,” until two years later.
“I just think the way in which we engage is very, very different,” she says. “As long as she’s around her voice is going to command something quite viable, but I wonder the extent to which the medium would continue to thrive.”
And with whom it would thrive, as communication styles have evolved, Wilder adds.
“I do think that another important question to raise is the extent to which Oprah’s brand, if you will, connects with younger generations, particularly younger generations of women of color,” she says.
Some have taken the Oprah baton and run with it.
“Red Table Talk,” a Facebook chat show hosted by Jada Pinkett Smith, Willow Smith, and Adrienne Banfield-Norris, is both multi-gen and next-gen. It features three generations of women tackling issues like motherhood and drug addiction.
The roughly 20-minute episodes are at times emotional, always thoughtful and wildly popular. One recent episode, an interview with gossip figure Jordyn Woods, racked up more than 30 million views in just a little more than two weeks.
“Oprah Winfrey Show” veteran Ellen Rakieten is among the show’s executive producers.
To be clear, Oprah’s discussions about important issues have not ceased since her talk show went off the air.
As a “60 Minutes” contributor, on her SuperSoul Conversations series, or the stage at the Golden Globes, she’s not stopped talking about what’s important to her. Nor are there indications she will be any time soon.
Winfrey and Apple entered into a multi-year content agreement last year but no details have been announced since.
With the tech company set to make some major announcements about its video programming at a March 25 event in Cupertino, California, it stands to reason specifics on Winfrey’s plans with Apple could be among them.
“I think the country is benefiting from having Oprah in the position that she’s in right now,” Wilder says, positively. “I think she’s been able to do a number of things with the OWN network in the way she’s provided spaces and platforms for other change-makers and other change-agents…other people who wouldn’t necessarily have a seat at the table or have any type of heavy influence.”
The ideal, Wilder says, would be to have not just the Oprah or another Oprah to lead the next generation, but many.
“People who can give voice to the voiceless, people who can allow us to comfortably push back. People who can convene us, connect us and inspire us. People who can push us to be critical,” she says. “I think there’s tons of women, particularly women of color, who are doing that on smaller scales that need to continue to do that.”
In that, Wilder is right. Having more platforms has positively led to more elevated voices.
But as viewers have found corners of the content landscape to feel seen and heard, what’s arguably still missing is what “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was for 25 seasons: a place where we feel challenged to see and hear others.