January 29 is Oprah Winfrey’s birthday! Winfrey is a media mogul, actress, philanthropist, and producer, who is best known for her talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show. The show ran for 25 seasons, won multiple awards, and is credited with popularizing confessional media.
In 1954, Winfrey was born in a rural town in Mississippi, and lived an impoverished childhood with her grandmother until her mother moved her to inner-city Milwaukee at the age of 6. Winfrey has stated that she suffered sexual abuse from her male family members and her mother’s male friends when she was younger. She eventually moved to Nashville to live with her supposed father who was a barber turned businessman.
Winfrey’s father, Vernon, put an emphasis on her education, and she became an honor student, eventually receiving a full scholarship to Tennessee State University. Around this time, she began reporting news for a local black radio station, and soon became the youngest and first black female anchor on Nashville’s WLAC-TV. After moving to Baltimore in 1976 to co-anchor the six o’ clock news, she was hired on as a co-host for Baltimore’s TV chat show, People are Talking.
It was after a move to Chicago to host AM Chicago, a morning show with low ratings, that Winfrey began to take the televised talk show world by storm. She brought the show from last to first in ratings, passing up former leader Phil Donahue‘s talk show. Because of her bold and open personality, she gained hundreds of thousands of viewers, and was cast in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple in 1985. She received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role, and the next year was given her own hour-long syndicated talk show named The Oprah Winfrey Show. The show’s syndication allowed it to be on 120 channels, gaining a whopping 10 million loyal viewers. In its first year, the show made $125 million, $30 million of which went to Winfrey. In order to gain ownership of her program from ABC, Winfrey started her own production company called Harpo Productions (Oprah spelled backwards). This move meant Winfrey would make even more from the continued syndication of her show.
During the early years of her show, it was dubbed as tabloid television. Not wanting to be associated with other gossipy and “trashy” television shows, Winfrey shifted the topics of her show and began reporting on a wider range of topics including health, geopolitics, spirituality, and celebrities who were involved in social issues. At first, her ratings suffered, but the respect she earned from her decision to avoid tabloid topics gained her popularity, and her viewership steadily increased.
Winfrey’s opinions and endorsements have proven to have a huge influence on public opinion. Her launch of “Oprah’s Book Club,” has had a significant impact on the publishing industry. After her successful weight loss efforts, Winfrey’s personal chef and trainer both produced best-selling books. Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Rachael Ray can all credit their talk show successes to Winfrey and Harpo Productions after each made multiple appearances on The Opera Winfrey Show. Winfrey’s only political endorsement came with the campaign President Barack Obama, for whom it is estimated she influenced over a million votes in his favor.
In 1999, Winfrey co-founded the Oxygen Network, which produced programming targeted at female audiences. The next year she launched O, The Oprah Magazine and soon after signed a contract to continue making The Oprah Winfrey Show through 2011. When her 25-year old talk show ended, it was syndicated on 212 stations in the United States and 100 countries across the world. She started her own network, the Oprah Winfrey Network, when her contract with ABC was finished. The network didn’t receive much attention at first, but made headlines when Winfrey interviewed Lance Armstrong, cyclist and seven time Tour de France winner. His titles were rescinded when he was charged with using performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong’s admission of his substance abuse on OWN reportedly earned the network millions of dollars in revenue.
Winfrey has been ranked as the richest African-American of the 20th century, the only black billionaire in North America, Life magazine’s most influential woman of her generation, and the greatest black philanthropist in the history of the United States. As a children’s rights activist, Winfrey played a pivotal role in President Bill Clinton signing a bill creating a nationwide database of convicted child abusers. She also founded the Family for Better Lives foundation and was the first person to receive the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. The nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was given to Winfrey by President Obama in 2013 for the contributions she has made to her country.
Happy birthday, Oprah!