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Oprah Goes Out on Top

After 25 years on the air, Oprah Winfrey is finally bidding goodbye to syndication this week. The talk-show queen’s last episode airs May 25.

“She was and is a phenomenon,” says Bill Carroll, vice president of programming for Katz Television Group Programming. “I don’t think we’ll ever see anyone or any project that equals what she and her show have done. Part of that is because of who she is, and part of that is because times have changed over the past 25 years.”

Oprah Winfrey exploded into national syndication in 1986 at the age of 32 when she was already a broadcasting veteran. At 19, she became the youngest person and first African-American to anchor the news at WTVF Nashville. She then moved to Baltimore to coanchor WJZ’s 6 p.m. news. Later, she hosted a local talk show for the station.

In 1984, Winfrey moved to Chicago to host AM Chicago for ABC’s WLS, which remains Oprah’s anchor station today. WLS is the only station in the country that airs the show at 9 a.m. In just one month, AM Chicago started beating The Phil Donahue Show, which at the time was daytime’s hottest show.

It didn’t take Roger King—the legendary television distributor who also sold hit shows such as Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy! and Inside Edition to television stations— long to spot Winfrey’s talent. The relentless King began pitching the show to television stations— about which station managers were so clueless that they were referring to Oprah as “that Okra woman,” says Carroll—and got it on the air 18 months later.

The show premiered on Sept. 8, 1986, with an episode titled, “How to Marry the Man/Woman of Your Choice,” a title that’s as interesting to the lovelorn today as it was 25 years ago.

“When Oprah first came on, she was as much an Everywoman as has existed,” says Carroll. “She was a single woman looking for a relationship, who had issues with her weight, and who was adjusting to living in the big city. She was the prototype of the women who were watching.”

The Oprah Winfrey Show was an immediate success in daytime. King decided to take a risk and moved the show to the higher-watched, more lucrative 4 p.m. time slot to go head-to-head with Donahue on stations across the country.

“Roger made the case that it was the ideal lead out of soaps, but not initially that it was also a great news lead-in. Later, it was proven that Oprah was the ideal lead-in to news,” says Carroll. “Roger understood what he could best make the case for, and then he did it.”

“For Hearst Television, Oprah has been the quintessential news lead-in. She provided the one show that was comfortable with every topic even when her viewers weren’t,” says Emerson Coleman, Hearst Television’s vice president of programming. “There was a lot of laughter and a lot of crying when Oprah was on at 4 p.m., and believe me, she made a lot of news directors look awfully good.”

Just two years later, Winfrey launched her own production company, Harpo Studios, and became only the third woman in U.S. history, after Lucille Ball and Mary Pickford, to own a top production studio.

Since then, The Oprah Winfrey Show has crossed many barriers. Over the years, the show won 48 Daytime Emmys; it was so dominant that its producers stopped entering the show in the competition. When Oprah signs off on May 25, 4,561 episodes will have been produced.

Winfrey’s biggest shows are too many to mention, but some that people particularly remember are “Oprah’s Favorite Things,” in which Winfrey gave away items such as trips and iPods, throwing audience members into a screaming frenzy; the episode in which a newly thin Oprah emerged pulling a wagon of fat; and her gala 10-year anniversary party for her eponymous magazine, O.

Winfrey will close out her 25-year daytime run on television stations with three days of epic celebrations. The third- and second-to-last shows were taped last week in front of some 13,000 people at Chicago’s United Center. Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith were on hand to cohost, with appearances from such stars as Josh Groban, Patti La- Belle, Madonna, Beyonce, Aretha Franklin, Kristin Chenoweth, Tyler Perry, Rascal Flatts and Usher. The slate for the final episode remained under wraps at presstime.

“People often leave the stage too early or too late,” says Carroll. “The timing for Oprah’s departure is of her own doing at a time when things are changing. She probably made the right decision at the right time.”

It is true that ratings for all daytime TV shows, including Oprah, have fallen drastically in recent years, but Oprah remains TV’s top talker.

Still, there’s no real need to say goodbye to Winfrey just yet. Her eponymous network, OWN, is just getting going. While the new network has gotten off to a rocky start, fans can expect to see much more of Winfrey there now that her syndicated show is taking its final bow.

“I’ll be surprised if OWN is not at least reasonably successful,” says Carroll. “Once it’s the only place you can see Oprah, I think the dynamic changes.”

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