Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The only real change is that we have to quit pretending Oprah’s a Chicagoan

It amuses me to see the way some people have become so worked up over the fact that the Oprah Winfrey Show, as we have known it for the past three decades, will cease to exist.

For it’s not like Oprah is going to disappear from television, or from the public consciousness. In fact, she may very well become even more omnipresent in the future than she has been to date.

IT’S JUST THAT those of us Chicagoans who like to recite a name of internationally-known celebrities from our city have always gotten a kick out of including Winfrey’s name on the list – which also usually includes Michael Jordan (who also has left our fair city).

Heck, even Jim McMahon (the punky QB of ’85 Chicago Bears fame) has left the Chicago area, recently selling the suburban mansion in which he had lived since the days when he really was a star (and not just a former footballer).

Now, who are we going to claim as our city’s big star? Are we literally going to have to hope that Barack Obama makes a few more trips to Chicago to keep his South Side connections alive?

Or are we really going to have to start thinking of Richard M. Daley as our city’s big wig? That would be lame.

PERSONALLY, I DON’T think it detracts from Chicago’s positives that Oprah won’t really be a Chicagoan, because in my book, she hasn’t really been a part of the city’s daily routine for so long.

She may live in her condominium high in the sky above the Magnificent Mile during the months when her show is in production (and when commuting from elsewhere would be just too much of a pain in the butt). But she has that L.A.-area home she’d rather think of as her full-time address.

So the rumor mill speculation that she wants to shift herself full-time to living and working elsewhere isn’t that much of a shock.

Oprah, in my mind, was always the woman who was born elsewhere, worked in Baltimore before landing the first Chicago broadcast job, which she parlayed into the talk show that is an international phenomenon.

THE ONLY SHOCK in my mind is why she didn’t shift to a climate with more pleasant weather many years ago.

By now, those of us who care (and even many of us who don’t) know that she has no intention of signing a new syndication deal for her current show, which airs live on Channel 7 and turns up in the afternoon in most other broadcast markets.

I still remember when I lived and worked in Springfield, Ill., and Oprah was the lead-in program to the local newscast on the CBS affiliate based out of Champaign. Oprah was a significant factor in that station being the Number One ranked local newscast in the Champaign/Decatur/Springfield television market.

For the rest of the world, Oprah’s change is no change.

FOR IT WILL give her time to focus on developing a new cable television channel of her own – which means she will have total control over her production (not that she doesn’t pretty much control every facet already).

So for those of us who want to know the bottom line, it means that Oprah will become one of those features that people will be able to watch if they have cable television. Considering how prevalent cable programming is, I doubt that her viewership will become significantly smaller.

It will be a matter of people being able to watch the program whenever they want – either by catching it live or in reruns throughout the day on the cable station, or watching whatever snippets they choose to whenever they feel like going on the website.

As far as Chicagoans are concerned, the only real change will be that they don’t watch her on Channel 7 any longer (at least not after September 2011). Which means the management of WLS-TV may have a legitimate gripe. What are they going to come up with to fill that hour of time?

BUT SHOULD ANYONE get all that worked up just because Channel 7 has a dilemma to confront in just under two years?

If anything, the closest comparison to Winfrey might very well be Eppie Lederer. Remember Ann Landers, who spent some three decades as the advice columnist of the Chicago Sun-Times before deciding in 1987 to shift to the Chicago Tribune?

The rest of the country noticed no change. We in Chicago got used to reading Ann Landers’ advice in a different newspaper.

Now, we in Chicago will eventually get used to watching Winfrey’s broadcast gabbing on a different channel, one that will take advantage of the changes in the way our society watches television programming.

THE DAY LIKELY will come when many of us will barely remember Winfrey’s Channel 7 connection, and will probably think it odd that we could once only see Oprah when it aired at 9 a.m. – instead of whenever we had time for her.

Those of us who find Oprah to be a little overbearing likely will continue to ignore her, to no avail – since her fans seem to outnumber us.

And those people who seriously believe that life as we Chicagoans have known it is scheduled to come to an end in two years, I’d say you and Mayor Daley (who thinks Oprah is inclined to leave Chicago because of a few negative naysayers over her show’s public celebration earlier this year on Michigan Avenue) need to take a valium and relax.


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