On Television

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On Television

Starting in Baltimore

"How Do You Not Cry About That?"

"It's Like Breathing"

On to Chicago

The Color Purple

"A Victory for All of Us"

At the Oscars with Stedman

Going National


Winfrey was offered her first television job in 1974, while she was still in college. WLAC-TV (now WTVF), the CBS station in Nashville, hired her as the station's weekend news anchor.

She was tempted. Winfrey did not like college and wanted to quit. She hesitated, however. She knew that her father would disapprove if she quit early. She also did not want to let down the Elks Club, which had given her a full scholarship.

What changed her mind was the advice of a professor she liked. He pointed out that one main purpose of college is to prepare students for a good job. Here was a good job, being offered by a prestigious television network! He encouraged her to take it.

She agreed and accepted the position. This made Winfrey the first female African American news anchor in Nashville-and, at nineteen, the youngest anchor ever. With her new salary, she made as much money as her father earned.

Winfrey did well in the job and was popular, but some black power advocates criticized her. They accused her of being a token-that is, someone who was hired only because she happened to be black, at a time when the station needed racial diversity. Her reaction was cheerful agreement: "Sure, I was a token. But honey, I was one happy token."22

Starting in Baltimore

Winfrey stayed at the station for about two years. She was then offered her first job outside Nashville. In this job, she coanchoredthe six o'clock news at WJZ-TV, the ABC affiliate in Baltimore, Maryland. This was a much bigger market than Nashville, so it was a major step up.

The Battle of the Body Image

The station executives at Winfrey's first big job, in Baltimore, tried to remake her image. They sent her to a speech coach, which she found insulting-but which she allowed. Worse, they sent her to a fancy stylist in New York City for a makeover.

The stylist ruined her hair with a permanent that was too harsh. All of her hair fell out, except for a little bit in front. She could not find a wig that fit, so she wore scarves for months until it grew back.

The ongoing conflict between Winfrey and the station, and the humiliation of the botched makeover, caused tremendous stress for the young reporter. She found herself drawing on reserves of strength she did not know she had. She later joked that a person learns a lot about herself when she goes bald.

Winfrey began battling another problem during this period: her weight. She turned to food as a source of comfort from the pressures of her job. She lived in suburban Columbia, Maryland, across the street from a mall, and she would often walk there to gorge when she was stressed out or depressed. She recalls, "They had some of the best food stalls known to womankind."

Bob Greene and Oprah Winfrey, Make the Connection: Ten Steps to a Better Body-and a Better Life. New York: Hyperion, 1996, p. 3.

She began her new job in the summer of 1976, but she was not a success. Winfrey's news-reading style was unorthodox. She usually did not read the news exactly as it had been written. Her style was slightly improvisational. Winfrey did not make up news, but she took the teleprompter writing as only a general guide, and she would use different words if they seemed more natural.

Her coanchor was an older man who was accustomed to reading exactly what he saw. He disliked Winfrey's style, and he disliked her personally. Nor were the executives at WJZ happy with her. Winfrey freely acknowledges now that she was out of her depth: "I was 22 years old. I had no business anchoring the news in a major market."23

"How Do You Not Cry About That?"

The station executives did not want to fire her, so they tried something else. They switched her to reporting. But this was even worse. Winfrey was naturally emotional, and she could not rein in her tendency to get caught up in stories. The cool, detached air of the typical news reporter was not for her.

This reached a crisis point when Winfrey's bosses forced her to interview a mother who had just lost her children in a house fire. Winfrey did not want to do it. She felt it was wrong to intrude on personal grief in that way. But they refused to back down, and because she wanted to keep her job, she went along.

Winfrey did the interview, but she also apologized on air to the grieving woman and the audience. She says, "It was very hard for me to all of a sudden become 'Ms. Broadcast Journalist' and not feel things. How do you not worry about a woman who has lost all seven children and everything she's owned in a fire? How do you not cry about that?"24

"It's Like Breathing"

Winfrey's fortunes changed dramatically when a new station manager arrived at WJZ. He wanted to start a morning talk show. He understood that Winfrey's emotional, improvisational on-air persona could be an asset, not a liability, in that atmosphere, and he tapped her for the job.

The new show, People Are Talking, was a local version of successful national programs like The Today Show. Winfrey's cohost was the affable, gray-haired Richard Sher. The show's debut in August 1978 was promising, although Winfrey was still a long way from hosting celebrity superstars. The first guests on People Are Talking were an ice cream manufacturer and an actor from a daytime soap opera.

Nonetheless, the show was a hit, largely because of Winfrey. Television interviewers at the time typically did not react strongly to their guests' comments; they were busy thinking about the next question. But Winfrey was always present, paying close attention and connecting, laughing, and even crying when appropriate.

Affairs of the Heart

Adjusting to her new job in Baltimore was difficult,but not completely awful. For example, Winfrey made two lifelong friends while at WJZ. One was Maria Shriver, who was then a news anchor (and who would later marry Arnold Schwarzenegger). The other was Gayle King, then a production assistant at the station. King and Winfrey have remained best friends ever since.

She also found comfort in a romantic relationship with another reporter, Lloyd Kramer. Kramer was kind to her, but their romance ended when Kramer moved away to take another job.

Less successful was a relationship with a married man who treated Winfrey badly. The affair depressed her so much that she briefly contemplated suicide, even writing a farewell note to her friend Gayle King. Winfrey has since dismissed this, however: "That suicide note has been much overplayed. I couldn't kill myself. I would be afraid the minute I did it, something really good would happen and I'd miss it."

Quoted in Bill Adler, The Uncommon Wisdom of Oprah Winfrey. Secaucus, NJ: Birch Lane, 1997, p. 42.

It was a perfect fit. The talk-show format let Winfrey do what she did best: chat with a variety of people, about everything from cooking and clothes to intimate personal details. It was a style that came naturally to Winfrey, who recalls, "I said to myself, 'This is what I should be doing. It's like breathing.'"25

On to Chicago

The show was such a success that it was beating even Phil Donahue's show in the ratings. Donahue was a well-known talk-show host, seen nationally and based in Chicago, Illinois. He pioneered the "tabloid" style of program and had ruled the talk-show world for years.

Her success attracted attention from other stations. In 1983 she accepted a new job. It was a bold move-to Chicago, Donahue's home turf and the third-largest television market in the country. She was to be the solo host of a half-hour morning talk show, AM Chicago, on WLS-TV, the city's ABC affiliate.

Chicago, "the Windy City," is a huge metropolis and can be intimidating to first-time visitors, but Winfrey recalls that she liked it immediately: "My first day in Chicago . . . just walking down the street, it was like roots, like the motherland. I knew I belonged here."26

Winfrey began broadcasting on January 2, 1984. Once again, her intimate style made her a hit. Within months, the show rocketed from last place to the top talk show in Chicago. She was beating Donahue in his hometown! A year after it debuted, the program was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show and expanded to an hour.

The Color Purple

Another milestone in Winfrey's rapid career rise came in 1985. She was given her first major acting job in a supporting role in Steven Spielberg's film The Color Purple.

The story, based on a prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, takes place in the Deep South in the early- to mid-1900s. A poor girl, Celie (played by Whoopi Goldberg), tolerates years of abuse by an older husband (played by Danny Glover) before finding independence and a fulfilling life. Winfrey had loved the novel, considered it uplifting and inspirational, and was thrilled to be involved.

She was cast as Sofia, Celie's strong-willed sister-in-law. Sofia has also suffered abuse from men, but unlike Celie, she refuses to tolerate it. Sofia's proud, no-nonsense attitude causes her to confront the town's racist mayor and his wife. This altercation results in a beating, jail time, and years of sorrow.

Several experienced performers, including Tina Turner, were considered for the role. But Winfrey came to Spielberg's attention through Quincy Jones, an outstanding composer and music producer who was also one of the movie's producers. While in Chicago, Jones had seen her on television and knew she could play Sofia.

During the two months it took to shoot Winfrey's scenes, guest hosts and reruns filled the gap in her daily show. There was one unexpected aspect to the process. Winfrey had recently dieted and lost some weight, but the film producers asked her to stop. They wanted her to be heavy.

"A Victory for All of Us"

Having never acted in a film, Winfrey was nervous. She was doubly so in the presence of Hollywood stars like Glover and Spielberg. On one occasion, she was unable to cry on cue. Spielberg assured her that it was fine, that they would shoot another day. Winfrey went back to her trailer and cried all afternoon because she had not been able to cry on demand for Steven Spielberg.

But Winfrey was eventually at ease with the process, and she delivered a solid performance. In fact, her character became more important in the film than originally planned.

For example, in one scene she was supposed to deliver a single line, but she improvised a long speech-and that speech became key to the film. While performing it, Winfrey drew on the example of Fannie Lou Hamer, a major figure in the civil rights movement who, like Sofia, stood up to repeated beatings and jail time. Winfrey recalls,

I remember having sat there for three days of shooting, rocking at the table. Mine was the last angle to be shot. I had been sitting there watching everybody else. I had a lot of time to think about the years Sofia spent in jail, and the thousands of women and men, all the people who marched in Selma [Alabama, during the civil rights movement] who were thrown in jail, and what those years must have been like. Sofia finally speaking was a victory for all of us, and for me.27

At the Oscars with Stedman

Before the film came out, Winfrey was a celebrity only in the Chicago area. But her strong performance in The Color Purple put her in the national spotlight. Her performance was so powerful, in fact, that she earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Winfrey went to the Oscar ceremony that year in Los Angeles with a date. She had met Stedman Graham shortly after moving to Chicago. Born in New Jersey, he had played professional basketball in Europe and had a daughter, Wendy, from an early marriage. Having earned a master's degree in education, Graham at the time ran a corporate marketing and education firm. In 1985 he also founded a nonprofit organization, Athletes Against Drugs.

They knew each other casually for about a year before Graham asked Winfrey out. After that, the romance blossomed quickly. They have been more or less steady partners ever since. She says, "He's kind and supportive-and he's six foot six [1.8m, 15cm]!"28

To attend the Oscar show with Graham, Winfrey-although battling her weight, as she had for years-wore a dress so tight that she had to lie on the floor and ask others to help to get it on. After the ceremony, she joked that she was thrilled to lose (to Anjelica Huston, who won for Prizzi's Honor). Winfrey had been afraid that climbing the steps to get onstage would have made her burst the seams.

Going National

Back in Chicago, the show was skyrocketing. The time was right to take it a step further and syndicate it nationally. This meant taping the program, not broadcasting it live, so that it could be broadcast later all over the country by the stations that chose to buy it.

Winfrey was uncertain about signing a syndication deal. What helped persuade her was a discussion with her friend Roger Ebert, a Chicago-based film critic who had a popular syndicated television show and newspaper column. He predicted that in syndication, Winfrey's show would generate forty times the revenue of his own At the Movies.

Ebert was right. Starting with the first syndicated episode, on September 8, 1986, the show took off. It was soon the number-one daytime talk show in America, attracting double the audience of Donahue.

Oprah Trivia, Part One

Here are some fun facts aboutThe Oprah Winfrey Show:

  • It has been the number-one talk show for more than twenty seasons.
  • An estimated 49 million viewers a week see it in the United States.
  • About 300 audience members are at each taping-a total of more than 1 million people since the show began.
  • Women outnumber men in the audience by a ratio of 19 to 1.
  • A total of 117 countries broadcast the show, and nearly 50 million people a day see it around the world.
  • As of September 2005, more than thirty-seven hundred shows had been taped.

Adapted from Oprah.com, "The Oprah Winfrey Show Trivia: 20 Years in the Making!" www.oprah.com/presents/2005/20anniv/tows/tows_trivia.jhtml.

Thanks to syndication, the money started adding up. At the age of thirty-two, Winfrey became not only the first African American television host to be nationally syndicated, but she also became a millionaire. For the next season, 1987-1988, Winfrey's income jumped to $30 million.


When it had started, the show's production values were modest. Only a few people were needed. Sometimes they would find audience members by going out on the street, offering coffee and doughnuts. Winfrey did not even have her own office.

But that changed dramatically with syndication. More people and more sophisticated technology were needed. In 1988 Winfrey bought a dilapidated building in Chicago and created her own studio. The building had a colorful history. At the start of the twentieth century, it had been a military armory. In later years it was a roller rink and a television/movie studio called the Fred Niles Studio.

In its new incarnation, the building became Harpo Studios (her name spelled backward). Owning it made Winfrey the first black person, and only the third woman, to have a major television/movie studio. Winfrey was on her way to worldwide fame and fortune-and to changing the shape of television as well.

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On Television

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