On the 35th anniversary of the launch of Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, here’s looking at how the host built a world on inclusiveness, developing safe spaces for her guests to open up in.
Thirty-five years ago Oprah Winfrey’s talk show aired nationally for the very first time, thrusting America into a rave on confession culture. Winfrey’s introduction into the talk show space was not a novel thing. Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin had been reigning giants in the field, and thus Oprah’s slow but assured steps seemed even more significant. A Black woman of agency, Winfrey proudly wore her race and nationality to confidently face the glitz and glamour of media paraphernalia.
A feisty entry into the interview arena, Oprah was often considered to have “ just (blown) the whole thing open.” With her empathetic stance, she cajoled people into talking about their insecurities, enabling a safe space for them to open up in. Her curiosity knew no bounds. She wanted to know what made you tick and was equally interested in what gave you sleepless nights. That her set was practically filled with hundreds of audience members eagerly consuming the celebrities’ disclosures, was never a deterrent.
Oprah was functioning as a mass therapist, allowing these untouchable stars to come down at level playing fields and provide access to their exclusive lives. Once vulnerable, her guests immediately dropped their paparazzi sheen and became regular humans, crying and laughing at heartwarming revelations and cracking odd jokes.
One of Oprah’s major USPs was her vehement need to champion the underdog. While most hosts would choose glitzy stars for their television debut, Winfrey went for victims of sexual abuse and their perpetrators.
By the end of the show, she admitted that she had been a victim of sexual harassment when she was a child. The audacious move was both refreshing and alluring. With the simple move, Oprah removed the interviewer-interviewee boundary and redefined the axioms of journalism. She thrust herself into her audience and guests’ worlds and assured them that there was no bird’s-eye-view from where she was positioned. She was as much a part of their struggles and pain as their beloved.
Oprah’s well-deserved reign as the talk show queen met with a road bump around the early 1990s when there was a sudden surge to go the sensationalist way. With hosts like Montel Williams, Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake, the format of these episodes converted into infotainment with a lighter, more paparazzi feel about it. Winfrey remained steadfast that she would not give into peer pressure and continued with her simple, soulful presenting style that never shied away from showcasing raw emotions.
The fact that Oprah’s brand is based on sheer interpersonal bonds and empathetic viewpoints helped people trying to understand political shifts from fundamentalist factions to neo-liberal ones. The 1980s and 90s thus accepted Oprah’s no-holds-barred style with open arms.
Her truisms on self-love and positive thinking resonated with the masses who were navigating potent spiritual, social, economic, and cultural shifts in and around them.
Her influence was also bolstered by the fact that she launched multiple platforms through which to connect to her viewers. From a single talk show, she quickly expanded into a magazine, a book club, and eventually a personal network titled OWN (which she launched alongside Discovery Communications).
Her influence was so far-reaching that her book club picks (which were often leaning towards autobiographies of well-known personalities) led to the explosion of readership in the memoir genre.
Winfrey’s personalised outreach programmes (read talk shows) were deservedly hailed as a cultural shift in America’s consciousness. Her undeterred resilience to remain ‘different’ allowed her to become everyone’s own.