A Modest Theory About Oprah’s Decline in Viewership

In the past decade or so, Oprah Winfrey went from being a business to a businesswoman, which may have brought her private and privacy, but also cost her the most influential part of her brand.

Today they’re taping the last episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show. I’ve never watched more than 15 minutes of it. And I don’t mean that in a sniff-I-don’t-own-a-TV sense; I’ve navigated the vast wasteland since I was a kid, I’ve just never watched Oprah, mostly for what I assume are gender-normative reasons. That, and no one in my family watched it.

All I know about Oprah I’ve learned ambiently, and can fit on an index card: Steadman (the only celebrity I’ve ever seen in Chicago; he’s tall); the Secret; that time Tom Cruise jumped on her couch; The Corrections; that her weight is occasionally an issue; that one time a car company gave away a bunch of cars on her show, which I found interesting mostly for the resulting tax liabilities.

So I feel like I’m missing out a bit. I don’t miss the significance of many mainstream pop cultural happenings, but with Oprah I just draw a blank. I know so little that I can’t even fake engagement for professional purposes.

But am I missing out? A colleague and I were discussing the buzz, or lack thereof, over the final days of Oprah, and it seems more muted than I’d expect given the show’s prominence over my lifetime, falling on some kind of cultural Richter scale below the final Seinfeld and maybe even the final Sopranos. Certainly well below “Who Shot J.R.?,” though that may be because I really liked Dallas when I was a kid.

And as someone who’s only ambiently acquainted with her, I have a theory as to why. When I was growing up, Oprah Winfrey—the star and the person—was interesting. Her public battles with weight gain and loss, the will-she-or-won’t-she relationship with Steadman Graham, her evolution from a television host to a brand name and media mogul, all of it made for good tabloid fodder. But not standard-issue tabloid fodder: her story of reasonably grappling with the trappings of success were something of a respite from the usual miscreants.

She generated celebrity stories that didn’t make you feel dirty for reading them: aspirational tabloid fodder.

And all of that changed, as Marcia Froelke Coburn reported in 2008:

The visitor who remembers Winfrey from the old days, asking people backstage if she could get them a soda, met with her again a few years ago. “Things had changed,” he recalls. “I don’t think the queen of England is treated with such deference and formality.”

In Chicago, Winfrey is protected and hidden from random view. Since 1984, she has lived in Water Tower Place, in what is now a 15,000-square-foot duplex. Some residents in the building say they rarely see her on the elevators. Recently, she bought a 5,000-square-foot co-op on East Lake Shore Drive, one of the most exclusive addresses in the city. But she abandoned the idea of downsizing her Chicago duplex and moving there when she realized that residents from nearby apartments could see into her windows. That apartment has been sold.

[snip]

The air around Winfrey now is rarefied; her private life has a profile so low that only big money can sustain it—in her case, that profile remains very low.

That actually sounds pretty reasonable to me. I’m a nobody, and perceived as unfriendly even by the handful of people who know me; if I was as famous as Oprah Winfrey, who is as famous a person as exists in America, and was furthermore regarded by millions of complete strangers as America’s sister/mom/best friend, I’d be a Howard Hughes-level lunatic.

But Oprah’s always been her own best brand. As she became more retiring about her personal life, she stopped reaching my end of the cultural gossip line, save for the occasional story about the fits and starts of her increasingly wide set of brands. Business stories. About corporate leadership.

Jay-Z—one of Jessica Grose’s picks for Oprah’s spiritual substitute, and I’d agree if he didn’t seem endearingly uncomfortable and earnest on TV—famously said “I’m not a businessman / I’m a business, man.” Oprah went in the opposite direction, sublimating her fame into her portfolio.


Also worth mentioning: I think The Secret might have been a bridge too far for some viewers. Interestingly enough, Oprah’s harshest local critic has been the celebrity-besotted Richard Roeper. And it’s actually instructive, in that timeline, to watch how his criticism changes, from “this is entertainment fluff,” circa 1990, to “this is materialist fluff,” circa 1994, to “this is spiritualist/narcissist fluff” circa 1998. It’s telling; you can trace the evolution of her show. And though The Secret came later, it’s the one thing I can think of where people who could have otherwise cared less really started to notice that maybe that book was a bad idea.


See also:

The top moments in Oprah history (I remembered a couple!)

 Why people go to see Oprah live

Oprah’s awards—which, not coincidentally, kind of go from recognition of stuff she did on the screen to recognition of being a philanthropist/Oprah/etc.

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