The Oprah Winfrey Show

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The problem with wondering whether any TV series can replace The Oprah Winfrey Show is that the question assumes it is just a TV series. Sure, it started as one in 1986, when Chicago talk-show host Winfrey was another microphone slinger of the Phil Donahue school. But the show--which airs its last episode May 25 after a quarter-century--quickly outgrew the four corners of a TV screen. It became the most influential force in American publishing, a major product launchpad and the flagship of a media empire. Most important, it became, without any overt dogma or deity, America's biggest unofficial religion, one centered on confession, self-esteem and, of course, communion, taken five days a week.

Any Oprah highlight reel would be full of celebrity moments like Michael Jackson's talking about his skin and Tom Cruise's jumping on the couch. But fans' fondest memories will be of the host herself. She publicly revealed her childhood abuse and her insecurities while maintaining studied boundaries. In outside interviews, she could be cautious, but for an hour a day, she gave her audience everything, including new Pontiacs.

In the end, Oprah understood that the ultimate subject of each episode was the person watching it, and her confessions told fans that she was them--a woman with weaknesses and demons--albeit an ideal version. Other shows will give viewers the things The Oprah Winfrey Show did. But whoever wants to replace Oprah will have to do it not by copying her but by learning to embody her audience.