Are we finally over Oprah?
To quote George Clooney in Intolerable Cruelty, she fascinates me. I’m talking about Oprah Winfrey, not Catherine Zeta-Jones. Every time I see her interview a major star on The Oprah Winfrey Show, whether it’s Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, the Twilight kids, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, or Tom Cruise, I always wonder if she’s saying to herself, “Hahaha! I’m just as famous as you are and nobody knows anything about me….
“Oh, and I’m richer than you are, too!”
A large part of Oprah’s initial appeal among her core audience of women was that they looked at her and saw themselves — and what they could be. She had the perfect rags-to-riches story; she struggled with her weight; she was attached to man who wouldn’t commit — or whom she couldn’t commit too (or whatever was/is going on between her and Steadman Graham). She is the American Dream, but with enough nightmarish sequences thrown into the mix to keep it real.
My fascination with her began after she became an icon. I was both repelled and intrigued by the way she played everywoman while name-dropping and constantly reminding us that she’s a billionaire. (She was worth $2.7 billion as of May 2009, making her the wealthiest black person in the U.S., according to Forbes.) But icons don’t have to make sense. They just have to be… iconic.
Unlike so many superstars of her caliber (Cruise, Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson), Oprah seems to be more or less scandal-proof. In 2006, when James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, a supposedly autobiographical memoir and a 2005 Oprah’s Book Club selection, was found to have been largely fabricated, Winfrey turned Frey’s manipulation (and her own duping) into a highly praised live episode of her eponymous daytime talk show in which she interviewed and skewered Frey.
More recently, Oprah: A Biography, Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized Oprah exposé, painted quite the unflattering picture of our girl, but it seems to have done minimal PR damage — for now. According to EW.com, it’s being made into a movie, so we’ll have to wait until its 2011 debut to assess the ultimate fallout. Additionally, some have speculated that her endorsement of Barack Obama as well as her religious views (she believes there are many roads to heaven, and not all of them include a firm belief in God or Jesus) lost her some fans. I suspect both also gained her new fans, while others remain neutral regarding her political and religious beliefs. For years, Tom Cruise, a known Scientologist, was one of the biggest draws in Hollywood, and supporting Obama hasn’t hurt Will Smith’s career any more than Sarah Palin’s politics have stopped her from extending her 15 minutes indefinitely.
But eventually, every icon has his or her day, the moment when the crown goes a bit crooked, and the subjects start looking for someone new to adore. According to numerous headlines this week (including my own — keep reading, my answer is coming), for Oprah, that moment might have arrived the week of June 28, when the ratings for her talk show hit an all-time low of 2.9 (or 3.8 million viewers) — the first time in the show’s quarter century on air that it has fallen below 3.0., and a 23 per cent decline from the same week in 2009.
There could be several explanations for this. It’s summer rerun season, and there’s naturally a decrease in overall TV veiwership as people are out enjoying the summer weather and anticipating the return of first-run episodes of their favorite shows in the fall. Also, because of increased competition from cable and so many options to choose from, TV ratings overall are falling, so not even the Queen of Daytime (sorry, Susan Lucci!) would be immune to the downward trend. And yes, the Oprah Effect, in which her endorsement sends a book racing up the bestsellers list or an album speeding up the charts, seems to have cooled recently, but largely by her own design. The book club has been inactive since 2009, when Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them was the only selection of the year.
Also in her defense, the ratings for Oprah, still No. 1 among talk shows, though it’s lost to Judge Judy 14 out of the last 16 weeks, have been up and down for the last few years. Around this time in July of 2009, she experienced another all-time ratings low. (Hmm… wonder if the July 4 holiday has anything to do with it.) Then in November, thanks to an interview with Sarah Palin, the show enjoyed its highest ratings since 2007. Oprah (the woman and the show) is also still a big hit with the Hollywood A-list, including Twilight stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, who stopped by in May, so it’s way too early to consider her a goner.
But her show soon will be, literally: She’ll host her final episode in September of 2011. Even when Oprah (the show, not the woman) is history, she’ll have plenty of ways to wield her still-considerable clout. Let’s not forget that she executive produced the 2009 film Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, playing a major role in the $10 million film’s $62.8 million gross and six Oscar nominations. There’s also her magazine O, which for the second half of last year had a circulation of 2,479,722, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations (good enough for a No. 23 ranking among U.S. magazines), and OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, a venture between Oprah’s Harpo Inc. and Discovery Communications Inc., will debut on January 1 of next year in more than 70 million U.S. homes, with Shania Twain as one of its flagship stars and series that will feature appearances by Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Avatar director James Cameron, among other top-tier stars.
And if, while tending to her many irons in the fire, Oprah gets a little bored and wants to go overboard, she can always sign on to play herself in that movie version of Kitty Kelley’s biography (a la Oscar winner Sophia Loren, Joan Rivers and Naomi Judd, who all have played themselves in TV movies). Hollywood’s obviously not over her, so who wouldn’t cast her? I’m not over her either (yes, my fascination continues), and chances are, neither is most of her still-massive core constituency, so while starring in her own life story might do nothing for her credibility, it would practically guarantee her the biggest ratings of her career.