Oprah Winfrey was not the first person to host a talk show on television. But she revolutionized the genre. And with her grand personality, her multi-platform business plan and her relentless messages of positivity and self-improvement, she managed to infiltrate American life from all angles.
This week, as Oprah's show airs its final episode 25 years after it began, insights are beginning to emerge about just how deeply she has influenced our lives.
Oprah didn't just transform daytime talk shows from gossipy to intimate, after all. She also broke down the traditional barriers of journalism. She transformed the book-publishing industry. She made the very private very public. And she prepared a mass audience to celebrate differences among people, regardless of color, disabilities or sexual orientation.
"I cannot understate the impact that she has had on our culture," said Mary McNamara, a television critic at the Los Angeles Times. "You see it everywhere, from the explosion of memoirs to social media to journalists sharing their own opinions and own stories. That all started with Oprah."
Before Oprah, talk-show hosts of the 1960s, such as Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas, stuck with celebrity guests and objective discussions about politics, music, movies and other aspects of pop culture, said Janice Peck, an expert in media and culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of "The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era."
In the 1970s, Phil Donahue became the first host to invite everyday people onto his show and to walk the aisles, inviting the audience to join the conversation. Soon after, Barbara Walters began shocking viewers of 20/20 by asking questions that sometimes made her celebrity guests cry.
But when Oprah entered the talk show scene in 1986, she "just blew the whole thing open," McNamara said. "The only thing she was interested in was what made you feel, what made you cry, what you were scared of, what you were proud of. She was interviewing people as if she was talking to a child, getting to the bare emotional core."
While hosts like Geraldo Rivera and Sally Jessy Raphael were pursuing similar formats, Oprah first set her self apart in a pivotal episode in November 1987. The show featured both victims of sexual abuse and their molesters. During the conversation, Oprah confessed that she, too, had been molested as a child.
"When she did that, she changed the nature of journalism," McNamara said. "She became part of the audience and part of the people she was interviewing. She blurred everything together."
Another turning point came in 1994. By then, Oprah was getting sucked into the demand for sensationalism on talk shows hosted by Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake, Montel Williams and others. Deliberately, she made a decision to separate herself from what she called the "trash pack." Instead, she focused on positive, therapeutic and inspiring themes, aiming to help people to find their best selves.
With those messages, Peck said, Oprah managed to both satisfy and create a growing demand for just what she had to offer. The 1980s and 1990s were a period when the country was moving rightward politically toward a period of neoliberalism, according to Peck, with a cultural emphasis on the responsibility of individuals to look inward and change their own lives.
"She really tapped into a deeply American idea of self-transformation and the power of the mind, that if we have the right attitude and positive thinking, we can transform our situation," Peck said. "Her message resonated because it tapped into these powerful economic, political, spiritual and social currents happening inside culture at the same time."
Oprah's message also resonated because she distributed it through a dizzying number of platforms, including her talk show, her magazine, her book club and next, her new network. (OWN is a joint venture between Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications.) These many Oprah outlets continue to influence culture in countless ways.
The publishing industry, for one, has begun commissioning books that fit into the mold of Oprah's book club picks, and the memoir genre has exploded since she started the club. Libraries recommend books that are similar to Oprah's picks. And bookstores have entire sections devoted to books that she has recommended.
Even print journalists now look for opportunities to insert personal anecdotes into their articles. "In news organizations," McNamara said, "you see this idea that a story hasn't been truly reported until the reporter reports on the reporting."
Perhaps most of all, Oprah has taught people how to accept others who are not like them. Viewers barely blink an eye at popular shows like "Modern Family" and "Glee," which feature gay couples and kids in wheelchairs, said McNamara.
McNamara also pointed to a recent documentary about Cher's transgender son, Chaz, and his transformation from woman to man. In the film, Chaz's grandmother says in an interview that she accepts her grandson because she saw something similar on Oprah.
"This is Cher's son, growing up in a rarified atmosphere and exposed to all sorts of different people," McNamara said. "But it was Oprah who told this woman that it was OK to be transgender."
"That was the service she provided," she added. "She said we are all essentially the same. And she celebrated our differences."