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Exit the queen

As her legacy rolls onward and her brand expands, Oprah Winfrey ends the show that made her a star

Oprah Winfrey got teary-eyed during the taping of her star-studded farewell spectacular. Oprah Winfrey got teary-eyed during the taping of her star-studded farewell spectacular. (Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / May 20, 2011

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Next Wednesday, “The Oprah Winfrey Show’’ completes an epic run of some 5,000 episodes since 1986. And all week, the pop cultural elite will be lining up to pay tribute to her and her landmark talk series, including Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Madonna, Will Smith, Halle Berry, Beyoncé, Simon Cowell, Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey, Jamie Foxx, and Usher. Did I leave anyone out? Oh, yeah: Aretha Franklin, singing “Amazing Grace.’’

And really who could deny Oprah’s achievements? She is also an Oscar-nominated actress, a movie producer, an author, a magazine publisher, the head of a cable channel, a Martha Stewart-esque lifestyle guru, and a political influence who endorsed another O — Obama — for president. She is a tireless philanthropist, and, of course, she is a billionaire.

And her goals aren’t only earthly, which is the brilliance of her brand. Oprah has made herself into a quasi-spiritual leader in a temple of self-improvement icons, from Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil to Eckhart Tolle and “The Secret’’ author Rhonda Byrne. To a global audience, she passionately promotes products and belief systems meant to help you realize your “best self,’’ as she puts it. Her show and her channel, OWN, consistently offer lifestyle how-to material that’s quite distinct from what you find on HGTV and Bravo; they’re always riding on a thrust of empowerment and do-goodism. Most things she attaches her name to, from the charitable-giving reality series “Oprah’s Big Give’’ to O, The Oprah Magazine, inevitably contain themes of improving your heart and soul as well as your body, your wallet, and your menu.

Oprah’s biography is essential to the power and success of her gestalt. She fought her way out of a poor Mississippi childhood fraught with abuse, getting shuffled around between her parents and her grandmother, to reach the heights of fame and fortune through the predominantly white, male realm of TV talk. It’s a rousing American story, and she has never turned her back on it, consistently standing up for victims of abuse and family dysfunction. She doesn’t just promote self-realization, she embodies it, and her faithful fans respond to that. She engenders a uniquely steady kind of loyalty in an era of backlash, of pedestal making and then pedestal-breaking.

The closest comparison to Oprah I can think of is the high priestess in a sci-fi story — Anna from “V,’’ for example, who enthralls humankind with promises of eternal peace and happiness, all except those soulless cynics who raise an eyebrow at demigods. Soulless cynics and newspaper critics, too.

I admire Oprah’s success, despite the way she cultivates an air of regal sanctimony as the Queen of Good Works. She has done a lot of good things for a lot of people, and she has earned some measure of moral standing. But her uplift, particularly as it emanates through her talk show, has never found me. Too many of her keys to transformation have seemed like New Age mumbo-jumbo or quick fixes, the kinds of promises you find in small ads in the back of magazines. As she jumps from one to another, she diminishes them, as if each has very little stamina. Her championing of self-help methods that reek of snake oil such as “The Secret’’ undermines her support of more proven global causes. Using her influence to lead millions of fans and their dollars to such a limited, elitist “philosophy’’ smacks of exploitation or, at the very least, sloppiness and negligence.

And while she has played a role in bringing important issues of family abuse, weight gain, and gay and lesbian acceptance into the limelight, her show has also contributed to the Jerry Springer-esque carnival atmosphere of too much daytime TV — the tabloid-toned material that has a creative link to some of today’s more garish reality shows. Her sensational episodes about the likes of The Wife Who Left Her Husband for Another Woman have been an important step in TV’s evolution toward the likes of “Jon & Kate Plus 8,’’ “The Real Housewives,’’ and “Celebrity Rehab.’’

What stands out for me as an undeniable positive among everything from years of “The Oprah Winfrey Show’’? It’s not her Jackson family interviews or the Tom Cruise Jumping Event, which, by the way, Cruise will make fun of next week in one of Oprah’s final episodes. This is a cliché, I know, but I do believe she changed our culture for the better with her book club, which began in 1996. She liberated reading fiction by authors such as Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, and Gabriel García Márquez from the clutches of an elitist reputation, and she highlighted powerful novels by singular living writers such as Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Jeffrey Eugenides. She used her power to get her fans to read books that ultimately encourage them to use their own imaginations, and not rely on the thinking of a TV host.

Oprah is savvy as ever in deciding to give up her talk show at this moment in time. Network TV is currently struggling to redefine daytime programming, as ABC replaces “All My Children’’ and “One Life to Live’’ with inexpensive new series about weight loss and fashion. The tart pop moralist Judge Judy often dominates afternoon ratings — none of Oprah’s touchy-feely stuff for her. And the old-school talk format is becoming as played out as soap operas. Oprah’s ratings have dropped in recent years (from 12 million a day in the early ’90s to between 6 and 7 million now), as her food and lifestyle episodes have been duplicated on countless cable channels, including the Food Network and HGTV, as her relationship themes have been scooped up by reality TV, as celebrity interviews have become a dime a dozen, and as promotional talk-show chatter has grown ever more pointless and banal. Indeed, all talk shows — day and night — are in the process of self-examination, as newcomers such as Jimmy Fallon are busy trying to revive the genre in the age of viral spots.

Oprah isn’t going anywhere, and I’m betting she will be able to keep her brand alive on TV through OWN. Until now, she has not had a chance to throw her full support behind the troubled network, which has not found an audience since it premiered in January. Indeed, a paltry 300,000 on average are tuning into OWN in prime time, and 150,000 during the day. But as “The Oprah Winfrey Show’’ completes its run of new episodes (repeats will air through September, and then on OWN), Oprah may be able to pull her fans into her cable “environment.’’ As she moves her caravan to a less traveled road, let’s see if she can get viewers to step right up.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.