Winfrey’s push toward finale won’t be small

Oprah WinfreyBack in 1996, when Phil Donahue taped the finale of his groundbreaking daytime TV talk show in New York, the once-dominant program had become such an afterthought that it didn’t even air in that market.

That was after 26 seasons in national syndication.

So it is telling how the heir to Donahue’s throne, Oprah Winfrey, framed her announcement Friday that she will leave syndication after 25 seasons.

Still No. 1 by a wide margin, she promised viewers that she and her production team “will be brainstorming new ways that we can entertain you, and inform you and uplift you” and then “knock your socks off” in the run-up to the final show in 2011.

“The countdown to the end of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ starts now,” Winfrey said at the end of Friday’s telecast, a tear stubbornly holding to the corner of her left eye. “And, until that day in 2011 when it ends, I intend to soak up every meaningful, joy-filled moment with you.”

Winfrey is going to go big and go home.

Which raises the question of where home is exactly?

Unaddressed by Winfrey is whether she will pull up stakes for California and leave Chicago, the city from which she climbed to the global stage. Mayor Richard Daley and many others seem to assume she will, although a spokesman for Winfrey’s Harpo Inc., which employs more than 400 here, indicated such talk is premature.

California is where OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, her coming cable collaboration with Discovery Communication, is based. She also owns a huge estate there.

Plus, it’s rarely necessary to wear a parka, which is a much more sensible rationale than Daley’s assertion that Chicago’s press corps, generally prostrate when it comes to all things O, somehow had so rubbed her the wrong way that she had to flee.

Even nationally, when someone in the media attempts to pin something on Winfrey, not much sticks ? essentially because there doesn’t seem to be all that much appetite for it. A withering 6,000-word Newsweek report in June dismissing some of the unconventional health regimens Winfrey has showcased on her show as potentially dangerous quackery came and went without so much as leaving a lasting mark on the host.

Given her evangelism for Chicago in its failed effort to sway International Olympic Committee members and secure the 2016 games, it’s not inconceivable Winfrey would stay some of the time.

There’s no rush to decide, assuming she hasn’t already.

Winfrey made the announcement about her show this far out only so the stations that carry it have enough time to figure out what they will do with the stacks of big bills no longer committed to the program and the gaping hole its absence will leave.

If Winfrey does leave town, it likely will sting, more than when Jerry Springer moved his show and maybe not as much as when Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls. People come and people go. It happens in cities.

When David Letterman eventually packs up his late night bag of tricks, New York will not weep. And Letterman has tied his program far more to his city than Winfrey has to hers.

Save for exceptions such as her Michigan Avenue block party to open this TV season or her broadcast the day after President-elect Barack Obama’s post-election rally in Grant Park, Winfrey did not do a show in Chicago so much as a show merely from here.

Freed of her syndication deal in 2011’s third quarter, it’s not clear what on-camera role Winfrey will have on OWN, which already has delayed its debut more than once. After Winfrey’s on-air remarks Friday, OWN announced its latest target launch as January ’11.

At 55, Winfrey’s priorities may be changing. She may be willing to trade influence for legacy concerns and new challenges. But she remains a competitor in every way.

So far this season, her 24th, one can see Winfrey aggressively booking her program with an eye to ratings. Her program is averaging 7.1 million U.S. viewers, up from last season’s average of 6.2 million, which was low enough by “Oprah” standards to raise eyebrows, yet still more than 2 million viewers beyond her closest competitor.

“Twenty-five years feels right in my bones and it feels right in my spirit,” Winfrey said. “It’s the perfect number ? the exact right time. So I hope that you will take this 18-month ride with me right through to the final show.”

No coasting. No going downhill.

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.