In today’s age of technology there are several avenues where people can receive vital information pertaining to news, culture, and society. These avenues include newspapers, magazines, television, radio, cellphones, tablets, and computers via the World Wide Web. This is generally known as mass communication or mass media. Through mass media, one person can make a statement and it reach millions simultaneously. Mass media allows people to remain informed about breaking news, current cultural trends, or social issues. Thus, media is not just a fashion; it plays a dynamic role in today’s world. Providing an added link on the chain of gossip, journalism remains a prevalent and dominating force in media. Only one person in the last few decades has made a significant impact in the world of communications. She has taken over American hearts and American television. Her name is Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey has made an unprecedented impact on society and has changed the age of communication, making her a true leader in journalism and media.
Oprah Winfrey became a household name when she became host of her own show titled, The Oprah Winfrey Show, in 1986. It immediately gained popularity. Winfrey used her show as an avenue to discuss social issues in American society. Her topics ranged from the AIDS crisis to building healthy relationships. During the show, Winfrey utilized her hour of programing interviewing various people such as actors and singers to home makers and to the middle class and commoners. Winfrey and her guest would then discuss their problems and/or talked about important issues in that effect American culture. Often Winfrey brought psychologist, relationship experts, and even celebrities on the show to weigh-in on the dialogue. As Winfrey became more popular she ventured out into other venues of communication, journalism, and media. She created, bought, and became chairwoman and CEO of Harpo Studio’s now called Harpo Productions in the mid 90’s.
Harpo Studios became the production home of her show which became increasingly famous with each passing year. When the last show aired in May of 2011, Winfrey reached “over 22 million viewers daily”, (Pasternak, 2009). With Harpo Studies Winfrey produced other shows including Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and the Rosie Show. However, Winfrey did not stop here. She continued to dominate television through Harpo Studios producing a number of hit shows. Her path in communications and media continued when she gained interest in cable networks. “In 1998 Winfrey became involved in Oxygen Media, which includes a cable television station aimed at women”, (Pasternak, 2009). However, Winfrey didn’t stop and like the energizer bunny she kept going. Over time she became an expert entrepreneur investing, producing, and becoming involved in a number of programs, movies, networks, and shows. She ventured out even further into the field of journalism when she became involved in printing. Winfrey developed a new magazine publication called, O, The Oprah Magazine in the summer of 2000. Almost immediately, Winfrey gained “a subscription base of 2.5 million readers”, (Pasternak, 2009). Winfrey’s list of accomplishments only continues. Most recently she became CEO and chairwoman of a network entitled OWN, acronym for the Oprah Winfrey Network. It took over the Discovery Health channel in 2011. With such an extensive background in media, journalism, and communications, it is important to know and understand how Winfrey was able to gain success and popularity from only a self-named a talk show.
To understand Winfrey’s growth in success, one must first understand the nature of communication, journalism, and media. Journalism is imperatively linked to communications and media due to its form. Communication is defined as “the transmission of a message from one source to a receiver” (Baran, 2010). Avenues of communication including platforms like telephone, television, and the internet are all considered a medium to interact with audiences. These mediums act as an interceptor of communication as it transmits a message from one person to another. “When the medium is a technology that carries messages to a large number of people- as newspapers carry the printed word and radio conveys the sound of music and news- we call it mass medium (the plural of medium is media)”, (Baran, 2010). With the wide use of mass media in today’s society, it is a way to communicate news around the world as well as platform for entertainment. Thus, it directly influences culture and society. Media is constantly being consumed by audiences. It plays an important role in one’s daily life as many find it impossible to escape interactions with mass communications. Statistics indicate the 98% of Americans have a television in their home. This makes mass media a powerful force in our society. It allows talk shows such as The Oprah Winfrey Show to make a significant impact on American culture and the lives of others.
Oprah Winfrey is an over the hill, single, African American female, who grew up poor in the small town of Mississippi. Despite this, she has grown famous and popular amongst middle and upper class White American women. Winfrey could not have made the significant impact in the arena of communication without the women who paved the way before her. “As early as the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, talk shows hosted by women took on the homey, folksy, friendly feel that is associated with Winfrey today” (Haag, 1993). These influential women include Ethel Payne and Barbara Walters. Some argue that Winfrey mimicked different styles of journalism. Winfrey took this friendly feel, embraced it and made it her own. With The Oprah Winfrey Show airing on day time television and her ability to relate to other women, her audience and show slowly began to take shape towards a target audience: women. At the beginning of her production, the audience was predominately stay at home women. Throughout the history of her show, Winfrey continued to discuss controversial issues that faced society. These include teen suicide, homosexuality, and spousal abuse. Despite the range in topics and the shock of discussions, Winfrey conducted interviews and dialogue on a production set that mimicked a living room. There was a fireplace set in the back ground, nice cushioned seats, and pictures on the wall displaying the face of Winfrey. Decorations of the current season and her infamous emblem “O” remained in the backdrop. This created a feel for the audience that helped capture Winfrey’s personality and over-all direction of the show. However, it is not the set that made Winfrey famous. Considering that Winfrey was African American, female, and overweight, she did not fit the mold for America’s standard of beauty. Be it as it may, she was able to become a common name, face, and fixture in American society.
“Her success is attributable to the evolution of both her personal ‘legend’ and her communication style” (Haag, 1993). This “personal legend”, refers to Winfrey’s childhood and upbringing. To some her background is considered tragic or heartbreaking. The idea that Winfrey literally went from rags to riches represents the American dream. Winfrey shows no restraint when discussing her childhood which consisted of poverty, neglect, and sexual abuse. She displays little self-pity or shame towards her past. Furthermore, it allows her audience to get to know Winfrey on a more personal level. This provides “a sense of ‘interaction’ conveyed to viewers because [the] host appeared as themselves and often directly addressed the audience”, (Kurtz, 2011). Winfrey’s ability to speak both candidly and directly is what attracts the audience to her character. This creates what is known in communication as a personal attraction. Although the viewers may not be attracted to her because of her physical attributes, the audience is able to relate to her because of her façade and good natured personality.
Winfrey’s openness with her audience allowed viewers to create a pseudo relationship with her known as a Para social relationship. This relationship encouraged the audience to view Winfrey as a friend or neighbor. It encouraged women across the country to watch her daily and faithfully. The Para social relationship only reiterates that “mass media creators as well as researchers have long recognized that media consumers are drawn to compelling media characters and personalities”, (Kurtz, 2011). Consequently, Winfrey’s audience liked her as a person and invited Winfrey into their homes and living rooms on a regular basis. Another “one of the factors that contributes to peoples intense attachments to … Oprah Winfrey is the public’s access to their so-called back stage behaviors-behaviors that reveal how these individuals act in their private lives”, (Kurtz, 2011). The behavior that Winfrey exhibited during her show consisted with her behavior presented in outside interviews, appearances, and backstage. Thus, the audience did not view her as a fictional character, an actor, or someone who was simply playing the role. Viewers gravitated towards Winfrey because she continued to be herself, frank, friendly, and open to her watchers. Therefore, Winfrey’s audience was “influenced by other factors such as personality traits, feelings, beliefs, and experiences”, (Kurtz, 2011).
Winfrey continued to display a communication style that was uniquely her own and revolutionary in the 1980’s. A woman, Winfrey displayed communication “patterns commonly identified with female friendship, particularly those associated with self-disclosure, interaction norms, and listening skills” (Haag, 1993). Winfrey was unafraid to show emotional regard to occurrences or situations. During interviews Winfrey showed nonverbal communication with the audience as well as her guest. These forms of nonverbal communication included, crying, laughing, gasps, and body language. For a talk show host to show emotional regard to a guest was unheard of. It was common for media personalities to remain both stoic and indifferent. However, Winfrey continued to wear her heart on her shirt sleeve. She often showed empathy and was sympathetic to guest. If a guest displayed negative character, although she continued to be an avid listener, she was undaunted to state her true feelings of anger, disappointment, or disapproval.
As Winfrey gained in popularity, she continued to “engage in supportive, non-critical listening behaviors” (Haag, 1993). Showing the appropriate emotional reactions to her guest during the right times created a meaningful connection with the audience. As Winfrey became emotionally engaged so did the audience. When Winfrey’s eyes began to tear up viewers cried. When Winfrey laughed the audience laughed. When Winfrey showed disgust the audience became disgruntled. Hence, Winfrey was directly connected with her viewers on an emotional level further proving their Para social relationship. Most noted is Winfrey’s physical relationship with audience members. “She is shown touching audience member after audience member, grabbing their arms as they ask their questions, even resting her chin on one woman’s shoulder, virtually cuddling them” (Haag, 1993). This public display of affection on national television further demonstrates her strong relationship with viewers. She treated audience members like old friends despite these devoted viewers being actual strangers. These forms of nonverbal communication and emotional involvement with guest and the audience continue. It “conceptualize a form of audience involvement that priories social and emotional gratifications, motivates further viewing, and help to satisfy the affiliate needs of audience members” (Kurtz, 2011).
Winfrey has continued to gain recognition, notoriety, distinction, and popularity through her personal effect with viewers and communication style. However, this does not come close to stressing her fame and prominence in today’s society. Winfrey is described as having a “talent for putting her finger on America’s pulses” (Falk, 2011). She is also recognized as “one of the first and possibly the last black media figures of the post-civil rights era to gain a truly mass audience” (Falk, 2011). This description still does not represent one stick in the haystack when comparing the impression Winfrey has on American society. The best way to describe the overall Winfrey phenomenon is called, the “Oprah Effect”. It is a term created by journalist and researchers to describe the relationship between Winfrey and America. In general, the definition of the Oprah Effect is “her unprecedented ability to take companies from no names to brand names” (Scheafer, 2011).. For example, Winfrey once admitted that her favorite book was, Beloved by Toni Morrison. This self-admission caused the book to make the New Yorks Best Sellers List after being in hiatus for more than 20 years. Winfrey so much as mentions a product and it is instantly a sensation. If Winfrey likes it, viewers love it. Subsequently, the Oprah Effected as created a brand for herself, including her businesses and mass communication ventures.
The Oprah Effect has become a theory that has been analyzed and processed by academic scholars including those at Harvard University in 2010. There, scholars broke down the Oprah Effect into four main characteristics: attention, knowledge, attitude, and behavior. These characteristics are self-described. Winfrey talks about and brings attention to the product or issue by simply mentioning it. Once this is done, the audience is presented with information on the subject or item. With the item now introduced and presented, the audience is then given the opportunity to take on an attitude or perspective pertaining to the subject. Thus, the attitude influences the viewer’s behavior, to either consume the product or idea or to reject it. The Oprah Effect is utilized not only to endorse books, musicians, and products; it is also used to endorse political candidates and particular social views and ideas. Most controversial is Winfrey’s endorsement of the former democratic Presidential Candidate for the 2000 elections, Barak Obama.
The 2010 Harvard study indicates that, “the Oprah Effect has the influence of consuming soft news political content on vote choice” (Baum & Jamison, 2010). However, this is arguable. Winfrey’s show is considered soft news. It addresses issues and even celebrity updates but does not meet the standards of PBS NewsHour or Good Morning America. Soft news, such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, brings politics to audiences with no political interest. In this way, talk shows become a great source of information on politics without beating audiences over the head with it. Political figures who appear on soft news broadcast present themselves to a different audience variety. This includes different audiences ranging in age, economic and social status. Furthermore, when a politician or a political candidate is interviewed by soft news personalities, they tend to be more relaxed and represent themselves on a more personal level. Soft news forums generally do not debate with politicians concerning social issues imperative to the job. Most often in this forum politicians are questioned on family life, favorites, and able to provide anecdotes. Thus, politicians are able to be more tranquil, amiable, and take on a light and personalized character. “The 2000 presidential election finds that politically inattentive individuals who frequently watched day time talk shows during the campaign were likely to the candidates that appeared on the shows as more likeable then their non-viewing counterparts” (Baum & Jamison, 2010).
“While celebrity endorsements (such as Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barak Obama) increase participants’ perception of candidate viability, they do not increase perceptions of liability” (Baum & Jamison, 2010). Although Winfrey helped increase Obama’s popularity by supporting his campaign, this does not necessarily mean that her endorsement secured his presidency. This simply demonstrates that she provided additional knowledge to voters, thus helping them make an informative decision in a presidential candidate. W Obama’s presence on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Winfrey was able to “increase a person’s general political ‘expertise’ during that campaign” and “gain political knowledge” (Baum & Jamison, 2010) of Obama’s candidacy. Winfrey was aware of her effect on the nation. She utilized her social medium and communication skills to promote Obama’s election. Regarding the last two steps of the four Oprah Effects -attitude and behavior- she could only inform the audience of Obama. Winfrey cannot enforce her attitude and opinion onto her audiences to make views vote in favor of him.
“Because culture can limit and divide or liberate and unite, it offers us infinite opportunities to use communication for good- if we choose to do so”, (Baran, 2010). Winfrey has provided an example and platform for this to happen. In many ways, Winfrey is controversial because of her choice in topics, conversations, and issues. Yet she continues to be a positive force in social media and communication. Winfrey uses various topics to inform the nation about the AIDS outbreak, encouraged national literacy by introducing the Oprah Book Club, and promote education of sexual abuse by self-disclosing her own personal experience. Furthermore, she promotes self-help through healthy living and education. She continues to be a voice and visionary for the nation through mass communication. Winfrey has created a comforting realm for women throughout the country to liberate themselves, their families, and others around them. In order to promote self-help she produced the Dr. Phil Show, a psychologist who provides emotional therapy to patients on television. This has encouraged emotional stability and information to others with the same issues. “Logically, then, the most powerful voice in the forum have the power to shape our definitions and understandings”, (Baran, 2010).
Winfrey is a one of a kind in the industry of communications, mass media, and journalism. She has dominated various avenues of mass of media through television, the internet, and print. Owner of a production company producing movies and talk shows, Winfrey has promoted several pieces of literature. She is a name and face familiar worldwide and a leader in soft news. Winfrey is a leader holding several titles and has a long list of firsts. She is an entrepreneur, actress, educator, producer, philanthropist, talk show host. She is a former television reporter and anchor. The first black woman to host a nationally syndicated TV show, the first black woman to own a production company, the first black woman billionaire, and is fundamentally the world’s most recognized person known today. Winfrey has made her mark on the world. “A vital part of our relationship with Winfrey and a vital part of her incredible success, serving to let us feel intimate with her as well as making both her obvious ethnicity and her amazing success acceptable to a … largely white audience” (Haag, 1993).
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