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Women, especially, listen to Winfrey because they feel as if she's a friend. Although Phil Donahue pioneered the format she uses (mike-holding host moves among an audience whose members question guests), his show was mostly what I call "report-talk," which often typifies men's conversation. The overt focus is on information. Winfrey transformed the format into what I call "rapport-talk," the back-and-forth conversation that is the basis of female friendship, with its emphasis on self-revealing intimacies. She turned the focus from experts to ordinary people talking about personal issues. Girls' and women's friendships are often built on trading secrets. Winfrey's power is that she tells her own, divulging that she once ate a package of hot-dog buns drenched in maple syrup, that she had smoked cocaine, even that she had been raped as a child. With Winfrey, the talk show became more immediate, more confessional, more personal. When a guest's story moves her, she cries and spreads her arms for a hug.
When my book You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation was published, I was lucky enough to appear on both Donahue and Oprah--and to glimpse the difference between them. Winfrey related my book to her own life: she began by saying she had read the book and "saw myself over and over" in it. She then told one of my examples, adding, "I've done that a thousand times"--and illustrated it by describing herself and Stedman. (Like close friends, viewers know her "steady beau" by first name.)
Winfrey saw television's power to blend public and private; while it links strangers and conveys information over public airwaves, TV is most often viewed in the privacy of our homes. Like a family member, it sits down to meals with us and talks to us in the lonely afternoons. Grasping this paradox, Oprah exhorts viewers to improve their lives and the world. She makes people care because she cares. That is Winfrey's genius, and will be her legacy, as the changes she has wrought in the talk show continue to permeate our culture and shape our lives.
Deborah Tannen, a professor at Georgetown University, is author of The Argument Culture
An Influence Beyond WordsThe best hosts are more than just entertainers they are virtual power brokers.
More than funny, Carson was likable and acutely aware of America's mood: when he backed young comics, the nation accepted them too. When he made jokes about Watergate, Nixon knew it was time to get out of town.
For 23 years, the least telegenic man in America slumped and slurred through Sunday's "rilly big shew," a vaudevillian mix of high and low culture. When the Beatles and Elvis appeared on his stage, they instantly went mainstream.
EDWARD R. MURROW
A hard-edged war journalist on radio, he took on tough subjects, including Joseph McCarthy, on his TV show See It Now. But his popular Person to Person was the show celebrities angled to do long before anyone even knew of Barbara Walters.