Monday, November 23, 2009

Oprah retiring the talk show

Last Friday, I was asked to comment on the Australian national ABC radio program PM on the recent announcement that Oprah Winfrey is going to end her talk show after 25 years. It was an interesting non-event in terms of timing. Oprah does not plan to retire the show until September 2011, but it was big enough news to dominate the twitterverse and fill radio and newspaper space and time.

Given that I have written a few things on Oprah ( one chapter of Celebrity and Power and an entry in the Encyclopedia of Television), it was useful to think through what her contribution was to television, political and popular culture - and pass these vignettes on to the radio program. And because they only used a few seconds of these thoughts, I thought I would expand on them here:

  • Oprah played with how television can make the personal public. Her talk show was an interesting blend of personal exposure for more public causes. And she worked her persona into a form of connected representation of her audience. So, instead of the personal being exposed and revealed by others such as gossip magazines, Oprah predated those efforts by exposing and revealing her own weaknesses. Early on, her program dealt with her own issues of incest, child abuse, beauty and weight gain/loss. The program then provided permutations of how the personal becomes an object of talk and discussion. It was an incredible form of public therapy

  • Oprah articulated an audience into her persona. She worked very hard at making the display of an audience on a talk show a sign of a wider connection to the mass television audience. Along with Phil Donahue and then many others, Oprah moved with microphone into the audience to field questions and commentaries in a ritualitistic performance of connection and empathy.

The interesting development is that this kind of public therapy which predates the exposures and revelations that continuously occur via online social network sites, has lost its mass cathartic value. Its connection to the private and the personal was indeed extraordinary and in some ways has provided a kind of pedagogy of public exposure for people using social network sites.

Different connections are emerging between public personalities and their audiences and this decision by Oprah Winfrey underlines the shifting landscape of cultural forms and commodities. Oprah is planning on launching her own television network in 2011 and this will no doubt allow the proliferation of Oprah in a manner that allows it to permeate more fluidly into the way that ideas now move through the culture in online and offline patterns of interconnection and intercommunication.

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