Assessing Oprah's Farewell In 2011

Oprah Winfrey told her audience today that her talk show will end in 2011. Maureen Ryan, TV critic for the Chicago Tribune, discusses Winfrey's decision and if her power of network TV can translate to cable.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now, to today's big TV news. Oprah Winfrey told her audience that her show will come to a close at the end of next season.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Oprah Winfrey Show")

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Host): The countdown to the end of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" starts now. And until that day in 2011 when it ends, I intend to soak up every meaningful, joy-filled moment with you.

SIEGEL: And for more than 23 years, Oprah Winfrey has soaked up a lot of a moments. She shared the details of her own life with her millions of viewers, and she convinced a lot of celebrities to share intimate details of their lives, too. She made everyday people, mostly women, feel as though she was their best girlfriend, and of course, she created a media juggernaut beyond the TV show.

Well, Oprah Winfrey's sights are now set on cable and her new outlet called OWN for the Oprah Winfrey Network. And joining us now is Maureen Ryan, TV critic for the Chicago Tribune, which is a hometown paper for Oprah, at least for now, given the rumors that she might move to L.A.

Maureen Ryan, first of all, Oprah's got about two years to say goodbye, but she still apparently had to hold back tears today. What did you think of the announcement?

Ms. MAUREEN RYAN (TV Critic, Chicago Tribune): I wasn't actually shocked by it. I was a little surprised, but - because she's such an institution, she's someone who's been on the TV every day for so long that it's very hard to picture the world without her. She really made it all about the connection with the viewers and the connection she's had with them. And she didn't really talk in detail about what she's doing next and what her new ventures will be.

SIEGEL: She is a colossal figure in culture, in determining what books will become bestsellers. She's been in the movies and in business, but is there any one single thing that you would say about the impact that she's had?

Ms. RYAN: You know, think about the things that people talk about on TV now that we take as commonplace, that we don't even raise our eyebrows at, the stuff that's in the tabloids, you know. There's always been scandal sheets and so forth, but now it's an acceptable thing for people to talk about really intimate details of their lives, really intimate details of their personal stories, and we don't flinch at it.

You know, there were things that she brought up or made famous on her show that we, certainly as a culture, were not comfortable with chatting about over coffee 20 years ago, 24 years ago. So, I think it's really been a shift that she's been a big part of.

SIEGEL: She's been able to look at people and say, talk to me, just you, me and the seven million people who are watching right now.

Ms. RYAN: And that's an incredible skill. I think that's really - people say gosh, she's paid so much, and she's so - why does she get this kind of accolade or this level of fame? And I think it's because to be able to look at another person and create that moment of intimacy in the interview, but then also to be able to look at the viewer, look in the camera and make that viewer feel like she's connected to you, she has that incredible skill to make it look easy, and it's not easy.

SIEGEL: In this move of Oprah to a cable channel - we don't know exactly what she's going to be doing there - but who are the likely winners and losers from that shift?

Ms. RYAN: I think cable's the big winner. You know, I think the losers are actually quite legion. You know, there are certainly viewers who will miss her daily presence, but I think a lot of what she's become, what the show has become, and not in my view necessarily for the good, it's become a juggernaut for popular culture or the promotion of certain consumer items or films or movies or entertainment.

There's a certain element of her show now that I think has gotten more pronounced, that she is really a part of the industrial entertainment, you know, juggernaut. And she's there for the publishers and the film promoters and people in the entertainment industry who are promoting a new album or a product of some kind. And those people will certainly very much miss Oprah and also the celebrities who have some mistakes they want to correct or some public perception that they want to change, and they will not have that couch anymore to jump on or cry on as they will.

SIEGEL: Just one last point. In recent years, I gather her ratings have declined on television. Do you see that just as a statement of where television is in general and she's leaving at the top of her game, or has Oprah Winfrey possibly, to use the technical term of TV analysis, jumped the shark, that is, is she past her prime?

Ms. RYAN: I would tend to think that it's more the first thing you said about ratings just declining in general. I think that that's just an erosion that is across the board and kind of unstoppable, it seems, at this point. But I think it's also a case of, you know, maybe there is a little bit of Oprah fatigue. I mean, certainly in the last couple of years, especially with her coming out in support of Barack Obama, that sort of changed the perception of her. And I think, you know, the perception of Oprah as being apolitical and in love with books and movies and movie stars and personal stories sort of altered a little bit.

So, I think there was a natural kind of alteration of her image, and I think that probably led to a decline in some ratings. And, again, I think, you know, she sees that coming, and she sees it as the right time to make a change. And, you know, she's nothing if not perceptive about the media industry, as we've learned over the last 24 years.

SIEGEL: Maureen Ryan, TV critic for the Chicago Tribune. Thanks so much for talking with us.

Ms. RYAN: Thank you.

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