It was promo'd as the ultimate battle for the land of television talk, pitting Phil Donahue, blond, male and the reigning guru of American talk show fans for the last 14 years, against Oprah Winfrey, African-American, female and largely unknown outside Chicago and Baltimore, where she cut her teeth.
Monday, Sept. 9, was hailed as the beginning of the battle royal, because on that day the "Oprah Winfrey Show" went into national syndication in more than 130 markets, going head-to-head with "Donahue" in some. In three months, the Winfrey show was No. 1 in 68 percent of its markets and climbing.
The recent Emmy Awards presented on ABC for daytime programs confirmed what audience loyalty had already shown: Winfrey's was named best talk show, she was best talk-show host.
Ten months after "Oprah Winfrey" went national, the promoters have quieted, the dust has cleared and the new and undisputed king of daytime talk is a queen. For the millions of Americans who are addicted to television talk shows, Oprah Winfrey is, by popular and critical vote, the host of choice.
Before she was syndicated across the country, it was widely agreed that Winfrey was an unlikely television star. In a medium that is cool and dominated by the white, the male and the slender, she is black, female, overweight and far from dispassionate. While she is not without her detractors, at 33, her ascendency in televisionland has been close to meteoric.
The secret of her success seems to lie in her personal warmth and vulnerability and her empathy for people, an apparent strength that some feel she carries too far.
Accuse her of being too touchy-feelie, and Winfrey simply laughs. "That's the way I am," she said. "I've always been this way. I do care about people, and I refuse to believe there's anything at all wrong with that."
From humble beginnings at Nashville's WTVF as a reporter/anchor, she moved in 1976 to WJZ-TV in Baltimore as a co-anchor. It wasn't until 1978, when she became co-host of WJZ's "People Are Talking," that Winfrey realized she had the gift of gab. In 1984 she moved to Chicago as host of "A.M. Chicago," and the rest is the stuff of an unlikely television herstory.
But it is precisely the non-traditional, unconventional nature of both Winfrey and her show that accounts for its success. Whether her quests are a group of women whose men have done them wrong, cocaine abusers or transsexuals, Winfrey is involved, empathetic, compassionate. The objective, detached persona of the talk-show host is anathema to Winfrey.
One of her early shows was on pet death. A woman whose dog had died the same day as the space shuttle explosion confided to Winfrey that she hadn't yet been able to bury her beloved pooch. "Where is it?" asked a shocked Winfrey, tenderly patting the crying woman's shoulder. "In the freezer," the woman sobbed. "In your house?" blurted Winfrey, not missing a compassionate pat. The sobbing woman nodded yes. Later, Winfrey joked that it must be difficult getting to the ice cubes.
In television's perfect world, Winfrey is flawed. It is these blemishes that seem to make her less-than-perfect audience love her. Some of Winfrey's blemishes are obvious. She is overweight, but instead of hiding behind caftans and dull colors she favors fitted clothes in red, orange and purple. She has made her struggle to lose weight the focus of some of her shows, sponsoring a "Diet With Oprah" contest and pulling on sweats to exercise along with her audience.
Until recently, she was without a steady man in her life and not loving every minute of it. When guests on her show were experts on dating, mating or meeting men, Winfrey was quick to ask them for personal tips.
Winfrey also can be counted on to do the unexpected. In a way that some find offensive, silly or naive, Winfrey has examined racism as she sees fit. A segregated show focusing on racism, broadcast from Forsyth, Ga., site of Ku Klux Klan attacks on peaceful black protestors, elicited the ire of many, but certainly didn't hurt Winfrey's ratings. In addition, it broke new ground, something Winfrey definitely intends to do.
Winfrey is an imperfect woman who has bared her imperfections for all to see on national television and by doing so risked being despised for her openness. But the gamble has paid off, vulnerability has won out, and it so happens that the primarily female audience that watches morning talk was just waiting for Winfrey to come along and reveal herself.
Mingling with the audience after the show, Winfrey most often hears her fans mention "love" and "real."
"You can identify with Oprah because she's open, not prejudiced in any way, and she makes you feel good in the morning," said one woman. "Even if the topic is depressing or worrisome, you don't want to turn it off because she she makes you able to listen to it. It doesn't get morbid, ever. She makes you feel, 'Yeah, we can tackle this!'"
Added a blue-haired woman in her 60s who got up at 6 a.m. and traveled from the far suburbs to join Winfrey's audience: "She is wonderful and I love her! Oprah is like the dream of America come true, that anyone can be anything they want."
Not everyone loves Winfrey's show. The most common criticism is that it is lightweight, overly emotional and caters to the mostly white audience's desire for a safe, African-American "mammy" figure to relate to. While Winfrey is stung by such criticism, she is not stopped by it. She has consistently argued that there is room for Winfrey, Donahue and many more in the world of television talk. She adamantly rejects the notion that it is her job to please everyone all of the time. In fact, she bristles at the suggestion.
She makes it clear that no one has to watch her if they don't want to, and dismisses the "mammy" notion with a shrug of her shoulders and shake of her head.
"What disturbs me about this kind of criticism is that we as a people have not been of the mind of lifting each other up," said Winfrey. "I'm the first black woman in this country to have a nationally syndicated talk show and it seems to me like that would be worth celebrating."
The television audience obviously agrees with her. Not only that, they want more. Plans are in the works for a night-time situation comedy starring Winfrey. Requests for her at conventions, meetings and other speaking engagements stretch into the 1990s. Not to mention the demand for her in feature films -- she got solid notices in "The Color Purple" and "Native Son."
But whatever she does in other formats, her television talk show will probably remain her vehicle for touching and moving her audience. One fan was inspired to write Winfrey a five-page letter:
"I understand life through your show," wrote the viewer. "I understand people through your show. Sometimes I find myself laughing, sometimes cheering, sometimes crying and sometimes sitting in wide-eyed wonderment at the vastness of human love and compassion ... If I were to lose the chance to see you and understand life through your show, it would be a very sad thing."