For years, it seemed Oprah Winfrey would ride her crest of popularity undiminished by the troubles that typically affect other television personalities. With fans clamoring for more, she was able to start a magazine, spin off several daytime shows such as Dr. Phil, and is in the process of creating her own cable network.
But now there are signs of cracks in the foundation of Winfrey's empire, her daytime program The Oprah Winfrey Show. The program lost seven percent of its average viewership last season, with the show attracting less than seven million viewers on average during the period, according to the Associated Press, which cites data from Nielsen Media Research. With the show starting its new season Monday the question is: will Winfrey will be able to recapture those lost viewers -- and why did they depart in the first place?The show might just be tired after more than 20 years on the air, suggests Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert and professor at the University of Syracuse. "My students 15 years ago talked about Oprah Winfrey a lot," Thompson notes. "If you talk with a 21-year old woman these days, she's more likely to mention Tyra or Ellen then to mention Oprah."
Some might say her choice for a season debut shows signs of that aging: the daytime program will dig into its new season Monday with Winfrey interviewing Whitney Houston. Billed as a "jaw-dropping" interview, Winfrey explains in a press release that it's "one of the most powerful interviews" she's done in her career. Really? It seems unlikely whatever Houston might say would drop more jaws than Tom Cruise's couch bounce or Winfrey's evisceration of James Frey.
The ratings slide may also go beyond the show's age, notes Dana Cloud, a professor in the University of Texas' communications studies department. "Her message of endless opportunity and the generosity of the universe in terms of wealth isn't resonating right now during the economic crisis," Cloud says.
And then there's Winfrey's endorsement of President Barack Obama. While her liberal leanings were unlikely to have been a surprise to many, she may have rubbed some viewers the wrong way by simply coming out with a political view. "Her show is about personal life, and feel good, therapeutic, daily-life kinds of things, so for her to turn into a political figure is controversial as well," Cloud points out.
For those who feel Winfrey shouldn't be venturing into politics, the show's programming during its debut week this season should reassure: her couch will feature such pop figures as Mariah Carey and Dr. Phil.