Oprah Winfrey’s decision to pull the plug on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was a long time coming. Though the final episode made for a sad day for her gazillions of die-hard fans, it was hardly a shock. She’d been threatening to end the long-running No. 1 talk show for years, ever since she’d first mentioned plans to retire way back in 1997. Winfrey changed her mind and renewed her contract through 2002. When that year finally rolled around, she revealed another change of plans: She would pull the plug in 2006 (the show’s 20th anniversary year). But in 2009, after she extended her contract again, she announced that the show would cease broadcast for good in 2011.
Monday, September 13, 2010, marked the first episode of the show’s final season, and the charismatic host started it off with a bang. She told the exuberant audience members that she was taking all 300 of them on an exotic vacation to Australia. Oh, and her good buddy John Travolta — actor, pilot, and Scientologist extraordinaire — would be the guy to fly them there. The psyched audience careened over the edge into delirium (which tends to happen whenever Oprah gives things away).
One more secret to reveal
Midway through the season, Winfrey, who had dissected her personal life so deeply that she seemed to have no secrets left, told another one: She had a half-sister named Patricia. “I wanted you to hear it from me first,” Winfrey told her audience, and outlined how Patricia, who was born in 1963, began to search in 2007 for her birth mother (who did not respond to her outreach). A televised interview with Vernita Winfrey — Oprah’s mother — revealed details of her two deceased children, whose names matched Patricia’s dead siblings. Though her family eventually found out, Oprah was kept in the dark until her assistant told her. The amazing story was made even more emotional by the fact that her half-sister hadn’t attempted to capitalize on the relationship.
A humble last hurrah
On May 25, 2011, the final (4,561st) episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” aired. It was quieter and more personal than usual. Standing for the last time on her Harpo stage, Winfrey received a standing ovation — but this time the devoted audience was made up of only her friends and family, including her longtime love, Stedman Graham, and her fourth-grade teacher. Speaking directly to the camera, Winfrey expressed gratitude for her success and her fans, telling them between tears that “you and this show have been the greatest love of my life.”
A network of her OWN
Ceasing production didn’t mean closing up shop. Winfrey launched a massive new media venture: the Oprah Winfrey Network, a women-targeted cable TV network all her, ahem, OWN. Since her eponymous talk show’s final episode, Winfrey fans have gotten their fix through her show, “Oprah’s Lifeclass.” But the upstart network has been struggling since it launched in January; Forbes reported that “its average prime-time audience dropped 37 percent to 250,000 viewers in July.”
Things may be turning around, though, as the network might have a hit on its hands with its Rosie O’Donnell talk vehicle, “The Rosie Show,” recently given high marks by critics. So will Oprah’s second act succeed? The jury’s still out, but somehow we don’t doubt it.
Laura Barcella is a freelance writer and a Yahoo! copy editor. She has written pop culture, news, arts, and lifestyle pieces for more than 40 publications, including Salon.com, the Village Voice, AlterNet, ElleGirl, Nylon, Time Out New York, CNN.com, Bust, and the Chicago Sun-Times. She’s also the editor of the forthcoming anthology Madonna and Me, a collection of Madge-centric personal essays by women writers.