When Oprah Winfrey signs off her signature show next year, she will leave behind a legacy of unprecedented success at the Daytime Emmy Awards. Beyond that laudable achievement, she dominated the ratings throughout the 25 year-run of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and contributed to the culture in a way unlikely to be repeated by another talk show host.
Winfrey won a record number of Emmys in the early years of her self-titled gabfest: nine for Best Talk Show and seven as Best Talk Show Host. After receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Daytime Emmys in 1998, Winfrey stopped submitting herself as host and bowed out of the show race the following year. While she said she was doing so to give others a chance to win, many in the industry noted that that had already begun to happen.
"The Rosie O’Donnell Show" debuted in 1996 and both the host and the show quickly became Emmy darlings, with five wins in each category. Indeed, Rosie O'Donnell and Winfrey tied for hosting in 1998. Then Ellen DeGeneres came along and, so far, has four wins for hosting (2005 – 2008) and five for her talk show (2004 – 2007, 2010).
Following Winfrey's withdrawal from competition, there was a decline in the ratings for the Daytime Emmys. A show she faithfully attended and even hosted on occasion, suffered from her absence. If she chose to return to the competition for her final season and emceed the awards, she could do much to restore the faded luster of these top daytime TV kudos.
Winfrey's influence and importance reach into territory no other talk show host could imagine. She is lauded as a cultural figure that has become a mainstay of television and she has come to shape the way her viewers live. In the mid-1990s, Winfrey bucked the industry trend. She revamped her show, shifting away from the tabloid-friendly sensationalized topics on the likes of “The Sally Jesse Raphael Show” and “The Jerry Springer Show.” Instead, she focused on subjects that could improve the lives of her viewers.
By denouncing trash television, she attracted those ready for something more substantial. She wanted to help her audience live a better life, introducing segments like "Remember Your Spirit," which focused on spiritual growth, and brought regular health and lifestyle discussions to her show by adding “Tuesday’s With Dr. Oz." A recent CNBC special dubbed her influence “The Oprah Effect" and chronicled the impact of having a product or service featured or endorsed by Winfrey. When she dropped her Book Club segment, publishers were dismayed as any book spotlighted was an instant bestseller.
No other talk show tackles the weighty social issues the way she does. She recently devoted two hours to adult men who had been sexually molested as children. Not only did she handle this topic with sensitivity but she did it in a way that didn’t demean the victims. Her unparalleled ability to humanize almost any guest is going to be missed. It's going to be difficult to find another talk show willing to explore such deep and profound issues.
Photo: Oprah Winfrey at the 1987 Daytime Emmy Awards with the first of her seven Best Talk Show Host trophies (NATAS)