And that’s what’s ultimately so scary about Oprah. She puts the “cult” in pop culture.
The power of O
Even though much of her appeal is rooted in what’s been the highest-rated TV talk show for the past 19 years, Winfrey is more than just a television superstar. (Nielsen Media Research numbers indicate that each show averages about 9.3 million viewers, and it is currently the second-highest-rated syndicated program, behind Wheel of Fortune.)
Last year, Forbes.com listed her as number one atop its “Celebrity 100” power list, with Tiger Woods coming in second. The Internet portal About.com conducted a poll of most-admired entrepreneurs and, with more than half a million votes cast, Winfrey had swamped Bill Gates, 34 percent to 20 percent, with Donald Trump third at eight percent. There is even an organized effort under way, managed by a middle-aged Maryland public-relations consultant, to get Oprah a Nobel Peace Prize.
Yet, unlike other very powerful women (see Martha Stewart and Hillary Clinton) and unlike other media moguls with a message (see Ted Turner or Rupert Murdoch), Oprah has executed a singularly brilliant stroke: she has rendered herself largely immune to criticism or questioning — even from those made somewhat queasy by that power.
Syracuse’s Thompson acknowledges that Oprah’s “really got a grip on this culture. It is kind of frightening.” But he also thinks it’s good news that only a half century after segregation, an African-American woman could become such an important symbol.
Last May, noting that tickets to see Oprah on her “Live your Best Life” tour were being hawked for an obscene $715 a pop on the Internet, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote a piece that started out worrying about the “Cult of Oprah,” but ended up more or less believing in the “Church of Oprah.”
“Oprah has become this incredibly powerful, in some ways magnetic figure in this culture,” Robinson tells the Phoenix. “I think she’s obviously just stone brilliant.”
Like many charismatic figures, part of Winfrey’s genius lies in her uncanny ability to parlay conversational talent into media stardom. Her kingdom includes: the signature talk show now broadcast in over 120 countries; her O magazine with a circulation of 2.6 million as well as a quarterly publication called O at Home; a film company that has cranked out a number of films including Beloved and Tuesdays with Morrie; the book club reported to be the world’s largest, with a membership approaching one million; her Oprah.com Web site, which attracts more than three million monthly users; and her Oprah Winfrey philanthropic foundation, notably the charity Oprah’s Angel Network.
It doesn’t stop there. She has also had something of a career as an actress in The Color Purple, The Women of Brewster Place, and other productions, and she co-founded Oxygen Media, which operates a cable network for women. In 2002, her production company spun off another successful pseudo-psychology show starring her protégé Dr. Phil, which has become the second-most-watched TV talk show behind her program.