Oprah Gets Full-Fledged Museum Treatment In New Exhibition

Now she's a museum piece.

Oprah Winfrey, 64 -- self-made billionaire, TV legend, social activist, friend to celebrities and civilians alike, bestower of free cars and other lavish gifts -- is the subject of a year-long exhibition that opened last Friday (June 8) at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

Not surprisingly, her friend, Gayle King, got the first shot at reporting on the exhibition last Thursday on “CBS This Morning." Cameras went along with Gayle and Oprah as Oprah toured the exhibition for the first time.

“The exhibition [which runs through June 2019] will use the story of Winfrey and her 25-year daytime talk show as a lens to explore contemporary American history and culture, especially issues of power, gender and the media,” according to a press release from the NMAAHC, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution.



"[The exhibition] will feature video clips on a range of subjects, interactive interviews with Winfrey, costumes from her films 'Beloved' and 'The Color Purple' and artifacts from Harpo Studios in Chicago, home of 'The Oprah Winfrey Show'."

"This exhibition [titled 'Watching Oprah: "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and American Culture'] examines the power of television,” said a prepared statement from Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the museum. "Just as Oprah Winfrey watched TV coverage of the civil rights movement and was shaped by the era in which she was born and raised, she has gone on to have a profound effect on how Americans view themselves and each other in the tumultuous decades that followed."

The exhibition’s focus on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" comes in its second section, according to the news release. The other two sections are "America Shapes Oprah, 1950s-1980s" (Section 1) and "Oprah Shapes America" (Section 3).

It all sounds great. If one believes, as most of us do, that TV can make a positive impact on the world (rare as that might be), then "The Oprah Winfrey Show" (1986-2011) is a stellar example of this capability and more than worthy of an exhibition mounted in one of our national museums.

As an aside, it is coincidental but worth mentioning in this context that on the same day that this Oprah museum exhibition opened, an acclaimed documentary about Fred Rogers (better known as "Mister Rogers") -- titled "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" -- opened in theaters around the country.

His show, "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood," occupied the same rarified space as "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Both shows at least attempted to leave positive, constructive marks on the world they served and the people they reached.

The Oprah Winfrey exhibition revives memories of a very different era in television. Certainly, one unanswerable question about "The Oprah Winfrey Show," or any high-rated show that was on TV in the 1980s and ’90s when broadcast TV was still king, is whether or not her show would have made nearly the same impact in today's fragmented, multichannel era.

Or perhaps the question is irrelevant, since the answer is probably obvious: No. When "The Oprah Winfrey Show" ended its run in 2011, it had already been impacted by the changes in TV viewing habits that were remaking television. Daytime TV was one of the dayparts where the changes were being felt most acutely, and "The Oprah Winfrey Show" was drawing a fraction of the audience it once did.

But in its heyday, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" was a glorious spectacle to behold, drawing huge audiences in first-run syndication in the (then) all-important time period known as "early fringe" -- basically the hour before local stations started their early evening newscasts.

Her impact was especially felt on the ABC-owned stations, many of which are still No. 1 in their markets after years of enjoying the high-rated "Oprah Winfrey Show" as TV’s most potent lead-in.

Winfrey made most of her fortune in those years, as her show was continually renewed and her syndicators -- the King brothers -- aggressively increased the license fees that stations paid to air her show.

In her glory years, first-run syndication was a great place to be as daytime filled up with talk shows -- Oprah, Phil Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael, Geraldo Rivera, Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, Montel Williams, Jenny Jones, Richard Bey, Ricki Lake, Leeza Gibbons and a score of others -- some successful and some not.

As the topics and guests on the other shows grew nuttier, Oprah stood out as the only daytime talk show that did not traffic in low-rent guests and their incestuous relationships.

When all is said and done, maybe that's the main reason why Oprah Winfrey deserves the honor and recognition she is receiving at this stage in her life. She stuck to her guns and did it her way -- and everybody benefited.

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