CHICAGO — “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” an iconic broadcast that grew over two decades into a daytime television powerhouse and the foundation of a multibillion-dollar media empire, will end its run in 2011 after 25 seasons on the air, Winfrey’s production company said Thursday night.
Winfrey plans to announce the final date for her show during a live broadcast on Friday, Harpo Productions Inc. said, bringing an end to what has been television’s top-rated talk show for more than two decades, airing in 145 countries worldwide and watched by an estimated 42 million viewers a week in the U.S. alone.
A Harpo spokeswoman declined to comment Thursday on Winfrey’s future plans except to say that “The Oprah Winfrey Show” will not move to cable television.
Winfrey, 55, is widely expected to start up a new talk show on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, a much-delayed joint venture with Discovery Communications Inc. that is expected to debut in 2011. OWN is to replace the Discovery Health Channel and will debut in some 74 million homes. An OWN spokeswoman declined comment Thursday.
CBS Television Distribution, which distributes “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to more than 200 markets blanketing the United States, held out hope that it could continue doing business with Winfrey, perhaps producing a new show out of its studios in Los Angeles.
“We have the greatest respect for Oprah and wish her nothing but the best in her future endeavors,” the unit of CBS Corp. said in a statement. “We know that anything she turns her hand to will be a great success. We look forward to working with her for the next several years, and hopefully afterwards as well.”
Winfrey’s 24th season opened earlier this year with a bang, as she drew more than 20,000 fans to Chicago’s Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue for a block party with the Black Eyed Peas.
She followed up with a series of blockbuster interviews — Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, exclusives with singer Whitney Houston and ESPN’s Erin Andrews, and just this week, former Alaska governor, GOP vice presidential candidate and best-selling author Sarah Palin.
Over the years, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” grew from a newcomer that chipped away at talk king Phil Donahue’s dominance into a program that turned inspirational. The show covered a gamut that ranged from interviews with the world’s most famous celebrities to an honest discussion about her weight struggles.
“As that show evolved, it really kind of dressed up the neighborhood of the daytime talk show,” said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. “There was a seriousness to it, as though what she was doing was a calling and not just a television show.”
In 1986, pianist-showman Liberace gave his final TV interview to Winfrey, just six weeks before he died. In a widely viewed prime-time special aired in 1993, Michael Jackson revealed he suffered from a skin condition that produces depigmentation.
Tom Cruise enthusiastically declared his affection for the much-younger Katie Holmes on the program in 2005 — and jumped on the couch to prove it.
In 2004, Winfrey unveiled her most famous giveaway, when nearly 300 members of the studio audience opened a gift box to find the keys to a new car inside. The stunt became a classic show moment as much for Oprah’s reaction — “You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!” — as its $7 million price tag.
The show also became a launching pad for Oprah’s Book Club, and authors whose books were selected became best-sellers. The titles ranged from “Song of Solomon” and “Paradise” by Toni Morrison to Wally Lamb’s “She’s Come Undone” and Elie Wiesel’s “Night.”
For others, the selection backfired. “A Million Little Pieces” exploded in sales after Winfrey chose the James Frey memoir in fall 2005. Soon after, it was revealed as a fabricated tale of addiction and recovery, and Winfrey later chewed out Frey on her show.
“She’s been a great inspiration, a great support for all the shifts in politics and social consciousness and consciousness in general,” said hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. “I call her ‘Queen of the New Consciousness’ because she did so many things to change lives, the books that she promoted.”
The loss of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” would be a blow to CBS Corp. because it earns a percentage of hefty licensing fees from TV stations that use it. On a conference call with analysts two weeks ago, CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves said the contract with the show ran through most of 2011 and “if there’s a negative impact, it wouldn’t hit us until ’12.”
Talk of the show’s end often has accompanied impending contract negotiations for Winfrey. Before she signed her current contract in 2004, she had talked about quitting after the 2005-2006 season. As far back as 1995, she had called continuing “a difficult and important decision.”
CBS continues to sell several top shows into syndication, including “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy.” But many TV stations are struggling with falling advertising revenue and were unlikely to pay the same fees as in the past for Winfrey’s show, which has seen ratings slip 7 percent from a year ago and saw its average viewership slip below 7 million last season.
Winfrey started her broadcasting career as a teenager in Nashville, Tenn., reading the news at WVOL. Two years later, Winfrey started co-anchoring news broadcasts on WTVF-TV in Nashville. In 1976 she moved to Baltimore to anchor newscasts at WJZ-TV before becoming host of the local talk show “People Are Talking.”
In 1984, she relocated to Chicago to host WLS-TV’s morning talk show “A.M. Chicago” — the show became “The Oprah Winfrey Show” one year later. She set up Harpo the following year and her talk show went into syndication.
Powered by the show’s staggering success, Winfrey built a wide-ranging media empire. Harpo Studios produces shows hosted by Dr. Phil McGraw and celebrity chef Rachael Ray, and O, The Oprah Magazine was the nation’s 7th most popular magazine in the first half of 2009.
“I came from nothing,” Winfrey wrote in the 1998 book “Journey to Beloved.” ”No power. No money. Not even my thoughts were my own. I had no free will. No voice. Now, I have the freedom, power, and will to speak to millions every day — having come from nowhere.”
Earlier this year, Forbes scored Winfrey’s net worth at $2.7 billion, even as the magazine knocked her from atop its list of the world’s most powerful celebrities. The honor went to Angelina Jolie, but Winfrey was still No. 2 on the annual Celebrity 100 list — and the top earner at $275 million.
Caryn Rousseau/The Associated Press