In terms of regularly scheduled daily broadcast programming, Oprah Winfrey's prolonged swan song this week was the biggest event in daytime television since the wedding of Luke and Laura on "General Hospital" way back in 1981. Sadly, given the forces currently at work to marginalize this once robust and highly profitable day-part, it is the last such event we are ever likely to see.
Indeed, it seems to me that Oprah's grand farewell brings to a close not only the end of her reign as the Queen of Daytime, but a 30 year period of extraordinary vitality in daytime broadcast programming that began six years before the debut of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" with the explosive early '80s popularity of "GH." No soap opera since has enjoyed the power and impact of "GH" at that time. Similarly, no future talk show will ever be as popular and influential as "Oprah." The media world is simply too fragmented to allow for such singular dominance.
What a remarkable 30 years it was. Inspired by the success of "GH," virtually every soap opera at one time or another reinvented itself in an effort to remain contemporary and relevant. Meanwhile, while so many soaps transformed and transcended themselves, daytime talk and news went through similarly significant shifts, though not always for the better. Dozens of daytime talkers came and went, most of them determined to build on the legendary Phil Donahue's foundation of fearless taboo-busting and demonstrative topicality, but without being as thoughtful as he was about it. As a result, the regrettable if phenomenally successful genre of trash talk took hold and flooded the day-part. Oprah came along in 1986 and wasn't above dipping her toe in that river of swill, but declared in 1994 on the night she won her fifth Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host that she would never again go there and would use the power of her platform for something better. (I was in the press room at New York City's Marriott Marquis when Oprah made her career-refining statement. She wasn't kidding around. It was an electric moment.)
There were many other daytime high points during those three decades. The morning news shows, once stagey and studio-bound, were reimagined in such a way as to tap into the energy of significant New York locales, including Rockefeller Center ("The Today Show") and Times Square ("Good Morning America"). Paired at first with Kathie Lee Gifford and later with Kelly Ripa, Regis Philbin became a master of feel-good celebrity interviewing. Rosie O'Donnell did the same, for a while anyway, until she lost focus and used her hit talk show to vent about politics and other matters, killing it in the process. Ellen DeGeneres would later winningly join the feel-good genre. Throughout, daytime became so vital and exciting that even the legendary newswoman Barbara Walters wanted in, delivering the frequently controversial, always combustible and ever-evolving female talk program "The View" in 1997.
But none of them enjoyed the power and influence of "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
Since the '90s, I have ardently defended and championed broadcast daytime programming as TV worth watching, live or recorded. I have often said that if I had to choose between daytime and prime time as the only broadcast television I could watch, I would go with the former. When all of its components were at their best, the daily mix of soap operas, news programs and stimulating talk series was intoxicating.
But those days are over. Due to a toxic blend of financial concerns, bad management and creative bankruptcy, most of the soaps have met unceremonious ends. The losses of CBS' "Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns" signaled that no show was safe, even those with unique historical significance. In September, ABC will kill "All My Children" and, in January, "One Life to Live." (When "AMC" ends, yet another icon, Susan Lucci, will depart daytime broadcast television.) Also in the fall, Regis Philbin will exit "Live with Regis and Kelly," leaving Kelly Ripa and a new co-host to be named to carry on.
I think the collective departures of Oprah Winfrey and Regis Philbin, along with "All My Children" and "One Life to Live," may be a loss that will prove more damaging to ABC than it realizes. ("Oprah" and "Live" are syndicated but appear primarily on ABC stations.) Further, I think the negative impact of losing those high-profile people and widely known programs one right after the other will expand to hurt all of broadcast. Call it a reverse halo effect. Don't be surprised if, as far as daytime is concerned, the 2011-12 season proves to be a great one for basic cable.