article

11.20.09

Oprah's Kremlinologist

The Queen of Talk’s big move shook up the TV industry—as well one University of Colorado professor. Meet Janice Peck, the dean of Oprah studies.

Since news broke Thursday of Oprah Winfrey’s looming retirement from daytime TV, much has been made about how this could traumatize the Queen of Talk’s vast empire: her fans, her network, the publishing industry, Dr. Oz. But where is the concern for Janice Peck?

“My life is over now,” Peck says, from her home in Denver, where she’s taking the day off to care for Elie, her Border Collie, who has a broken foot.

Peck is perhaps the world’s leading Oprah Kremlinologist. An associate professor in the University of Colorado’s school for journalism and mass communication, she has spent the last two decades methodically analyzing Winfrey’s career moves, placing the billionaire media mogul in a political and economic context, and reading a history of the women’s movement in the dips and swells of Oprah’s ratings.

Specializing in Oprah studies isn’t the quickest way to humble one’s peers at academic conferences, but Peck has made solid work of talk-show scholarship.

“I have watched tons of episodes of her shows,” she says. “I have ordered and bought transcripts. I have probably read transcripts, beginning in 1986, of around 250 episodes, in addition to watching them. I have read books. I have written an analysis of one of the books in the book club. I have pored over the magazine. I know that Web site inside and out.” In short: “I study her.”

Specializing in Oprah studies isn’t the quickest way to humble one’s peers at academic conferences, but Peck has made solid work of talk-show scholarship. Her original interest was in religious television programming—her doctoral dissertation contrasted Jimmy Swaggart’s religious crusades with the relatively benign televangelizing on The 700 Club—but it was a short hop from there to the New Age-y, feed-your-spirit culture of Oprah.

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Janice Peck

Peck has published a small library of works looking at the talk-show host’s enduring appeal, including: “Talking About Racism: Framing a Popular Discourse of Race in Oprah Winfrey,” ( Cultural Critique, spring 1994); “TV Talk Shows as Therapeutic Discourse: The Ideological Labor of the Televised Talking Cure,” ( Communication Theory, February 1995); “Literacy, Seriousness and the Oprah Winfrey Book Club” ( Tabloid Tales: Global Debates Over Media Standards, 2000); and “The Oprah Effect: Texts, Readers, and the Dialectic of Signification.” ( The Communication Review, 2002). She has an essay called “The Politics of ‘Empowerment’ in Oprah Winfrey’s Global Philanthropy” in a forthcoming collection called Media, Spiritualities and Social Change.

Peck’s magnum opus, The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era, came out in May 2008. Its release happened to coincide with the beginning of a steady decline in Winfrey’s ratings—the beginning of the end. The book is a counterpunch to the volumes of Oprah hagiography the publishing business has churned out over the years. Peck, while not an antagonist, is hardly a fan. Her argument, in broad strokes, is that the Oprah show has had an effect eerily like the Reagan administration, in directing people to look inward for solutions to their own unhappiness, away from problems in society as a whole. Reagan dismantled the welfare state. Oprah discovered The Secret. In Peck’s words, she has studied “the rise and domination of Oprah’s show as a therapeutic outlet, in which everybody tries to imagine that the response to their problem can be found through personal psychological transformation, rather than looking at the society that produced this dysfunction.” A Korean translation of the book is on the way.

Peck has never actually met Winfrey, whose privately held Harpo production company exists behind an iron curtain of secrecy and whose employees sign comprehensive, life-long nondisclosure agreements. Once, she came close. She was working at the University of Minnesota at the time, driving distance from Chicago and thought, what the heck, she’d drive down one day and try for an interview “to expand my knowledge base.” She placed a call to one of Winfrey’s publicists. “Back then, a lowly academic could speak directly to someone at Harpo,” she says. The woman was “perfect congenial,” if not exactly helpful. “She said, 'Ms. Winfrey doesn’t talk to academics.’ So the door just kind of closed. And that was long before she became ‘the queen of all media.’”

Recently, she says, two Harpo employees working on the development of the Oprah Winfrey Network, the talk-show host’s new cable home, were in nearby Boulder and gave Peck a call. “They said, ‘We have your book, and we think it’s provocative,’” she says. “They wanted to do interviews with me to get insights in all of this.” She said no.

Although she professes indifference to the many teachings of the Oprah show—Peck and her husband, who’s pursuing a Ph.D. in Mexican history, repeat phrases from the program as jokes to each other—she does feel an emotional connection to the host. Peck, who is 57, was born two years before Winfrey. “Oprah and I took different paths,” she says, “but her empire was the bridge that brought us together.” Now that things are winding down, she does worry about her subject.

“It would be hard to be Oprah Winfrey,” she says. “You’ve got a person who’s entire public persona, and the empire on which it rests, is organized around one idea: that she is the person she is today and she has all of these successes because she is entirely self-actualized. She talks all the time about how she’s rid herself of her own demons. If you believe everything you are is how you think, as she professes, then there’s no room for any problems. When there’s any non-happiness anyplace, it undermines the entire message. Think of the pressure you’re under all the time to act as if everything’s perfect.”

For this reason, Winfrey’s retirement after a quarter-century on air was inevitable, Peck says. Between the ratings dropoff and the recent spate of scandals (including Winfrey’s controversial endorsements of Eckhart Tolle and the guru behind a sweat lodge where three died this fall), the end was nigh. Better to go out on a high note, with a blockbuster interview and big announcements about the (still uncertain) future, then face down the inevitability of someday not getting renewed.

It’s the end of an era—for America and for Oprah studies. But Peck is optimistic.

“I don’t want to be working on Oprah for the rest of my life,” she says. “I do have other interests, you know.”

Rebecca Dana is a culture correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.