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Gee, Oprah. A Thousand Smackeroos. Thanks a Bunch.

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Trick or treat!

Oprah Winfrey, who likes to lavish gifts on her studio audience -- diamond-encrusted watches, Sony camcorders, Burberry coats, BlackBerrys, cashmere sweaters, iPods, wide-screen LCD televisions, washer-dryers, Pontiac G6s -- yesterday gave approximately 300 audience members each $1,000.

"I really do think that it's the best gift I can give this audience, so thanks to our friends at Bank of America -- they thought this was a good idea, too . . . you will each go home with $1,000! . . . One thousand dollars! Okay?" Oprah asked, rhetorically.

Wildly enthusiastic audience response -- though, in truth, nowhere near the level of studio hysteria achieved when she gave audience members those Pontiacs. Still, a pretty happy crowd.

Then came the Trick.

The $1,000, she told them, will be doled out in the form of debit cards, and recipients must spend all of their money on a charity of choice. What she was actually giving them, Oprah said with all the patronization of a woman whose financial worth has been put at $1.5 billion, is "the best feeling in the world."

Definite dimming of enthusiasm in studio to level now far below car giveaway, which has become the gold standard of audience giveaway hysteria.

Or the diamond watches. Even iPods got a bigger response than this.

"I can honestly say that every gift I've ever given has brought at least as much happiness to me as it has to the person I've given it to," Oprah added, with all the complacency of a woman who owns three homes, including a $50 million estate in California.

"That's the feeling I want to pass on to you. I want you to have that feeling this season," she said.

But wait, there's more.

"To document your good deeds, because I want to make sure you document your good deeds," Oprah said, working hard to keep up their spirits, "we are lending everybody in this audience our favorite Sony DVD Handycam.

"Okay? . . . Okay? Okay?" Oprah said.

Then she explained that they had one week to shoot their money giveaway and the footage will be used for an upcoming show.

"Are you up for the challenge? Okay! Bring out the thousand-dollar debit cards!"

Which, in fairness, just doesn't have the same ring as "Let's bring out the keys to your new Pontiac G6!"

She called it her "favorite giveaway ever."

We suspect audience members could not say the same.

We're guessing this cost Bank of America about $300,000 and change, a real bargain given that a 30-second spot on Oprah's syndicated show went for about $70,000 back in free-Pontiac days. Back in 2004, people figured the giveaway cost the carmaker about $7 million, though Oprah spent about half of that show yakking about Pontiac this, Pontiac that. Yesterday, she spent only about the last 10 minutes on the debit cards.

The rest of the hour was consumed with feel-good pay-it-forward bits: adorable dog born without the use of his front legs who was rescued and taught how to walk on the other two; two immigrants who had hellish childhoods (she was sold into slavery), found each other on blind date, married, had kids and now donate profits from their business to help abused kids. Oprah even flew in from Australia the guy who started giving away free hugs at a mall in Sydney, an act that blossomed into the international Free Hugs campaign and turned him into the fastest-rising star on YouTube -- 4.5 million views and counting. Stranger-hugger Juan Mann was taped yesterday morning giving free hugs to "Oprah" audience members as they stood outside in the Windy City cold waiting to get in, visions of free goodies dancing in their heads.

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