article

11.20.09

The Hole in Our Lives

Oprah’s announced exit from day-time talk is more than a business move. Lorraine Ali on the loss of America’s mother confessor—and what it’s like to go on the show.

Cheating suburban housewives introduced me to Oprah. It was their bad behavior, the collapse of their marriages and their misguided dreams about The Other Man that landed me a guest spot on her talk show a few years ago. The segment was called “Swinging in the Suburbs,” and it dovetailed with a Newsweek cover story I wrote on unfaithful women. Seated on stage between a PTA mom who regularly attended swinger parties, and a woman who found God after her husband caught her cheating with her former college professor, I could hear the latter’s teeth nervously chattering as the intro music cued up, while the swinger gulped back the remorse she already felt for outing herself on national TV. I felt like barfing, my usual reaction to super high-profile TV appearances, but squared up because this was “Oprah.” Winfrey swept onto the stage, and within seconds of her first words with one of the unfaithful, an odd calm swept over all of us on stage. She was not just in charge, she was our friend, our confidante. She was there for us. It was safe—you could tell Oprah anything.

True, the show’s last air date is almost two years off, but like the End of Times, we need to start planning our demise now.

No wonder Tom Cruise felt comfortable enough on her show to unleash his inner freak (the one who dances on tables like a tweaker on day four of a bender), or author James Frey felt compelled to publicly apologize to Oprah for fabricating facts in a book of his she’d personally recommended to her fans. These were unparallel TV moments, and ones that’ll certainly be missed once she pulls the plug on her show in September of 2011. It’s hard to imagine what comes next for daytime television. True, the show’s last air date is almost two years off, but like the End of Times, we need to start planning our demise now. After all, ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show” has run for 25 seasons; for 23 of those, it’s been the number one-rated talk show. It’s watched by 42 million viewers weekly, and broadcast to 145 more countries. My 74-year-old aunt in Iraq knows who Oprah is. The media mogul’s weight loss, and gain, are cultural touchstones, common ground we can visit when needed.

Already, there is talk about who’s next in line to scoop up daytime ratings. To say Ellen could possible pick up where Winfrey left off is as absurd as calling Alicia Keys the Queen of Soul while Aretha Franklin still walks the earth. I like Ellen, but ma’am, she’s no Oprah. And let’s not even get into the mundane mire that is Tyra. Can you imagine any of those other talk show hosts getting a book club off the ground that actually inspires America to read again? Oprah helped launch some of the decade’s best sellers, such as “The Kite Runner.” Publishing houses must be in mourning over the news of her CBS show coming to end, and the self-help industry must be scrambling to find a new outlet. Oprah gave Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and Suze Orman the platform to become today’s premier self-help gurus (okay, so even Oprah has flaws.)

Kim Masters: Oprah Changes Channels

Gallery: The Oprahs of the World
Why stop now? Why was 25 years the magic number? Does she want time off to travel before the Mayan calendar runs out and time stops? It was clear why celebrities like Cat Stevens and Axl Rose bowed out close to the top of their game. One converted to Islam, the other went so insane that Lycra cycling shorts became his preferred stage wear. But Oprah’s announcement today can’t really be linked to anything quite as concrete, or shiny. The best guess is that, after a quarter of a century doing the same show, she’s bored and ready for something new. Her ratings, like everything on network TV, are starting to slide, so now is a good time to get out. Besides, who wants to have their make up done daily, and be worshipped by half of America, and give away cars and lavish gifts to hundreds of audience members yearly, ensuring their love and loyalty forever?

That’s a personal hell she’s opted to trade for “OWN” (Oprah Winfrey’s Network.) The network has been in the works for over two years, and it’ll be reportedly up-and-running by next year. Original programming that “feeds the soul and mind” will be its mainstay. Sounds great, but let’s cut to the chase. Will Oprah move her own talk show to her OWN channel? Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke says yes, and thank God. I can’t think of anyone else I’d trust with the cheaters, swingers and nervous journalists of America.

Lorraine Ali is a Los Angeles-based culture writer who's covered everything from gay divorce to Christian rock to the Arab American experience. She's a Newsweek Contributing Editor and has written for the New York Times, GQ, Rolling Stone and Esquire. Ali is currently working on a book about her Iraqi family that's due out next year.