Tom Cruise, one of the many surprise guests on Oprah Winfrey's third-to-last show Monday, didn't jump on a couch to declare his love for the queen of daytime talk. But he gave her what appears to be his ultimate compliment: "She is still kicking a--."
After 25 years and more than 4,500 shows of gently obliterating her competition, Winfrey is taking a well-deserved victory lap, leading up to her final syndicated daytime show Wednesday. But amid the parade of celebrities who filled Chicago's United Center for a two-day, star-studded tribute lingered the question of where does she – and daytime television – go from here?
The New York Times this week touted Winfrey's last show as the "biggest such moment in television" since Johnny Carson's final "Tonight Show" appearance 19 years ago this week. We'll agree and add a couple of other events, below Carson, to that list: Walter Cronkite's final sign-off three decades ago and Larry King's December goodbye party.
Like Winfrey, all three men weren't quite pioneers. But they took different forms of television – the late night entertainment talk show, the nightly network news and the cable new talk show – and made them their own.
Carson came off as the seeming everyman who no one could get close to, while Cronkite stood as trusted voice of authority and King played the endlessly curious Brooklyn guy unafraid to ask (sometimes silly) questions.
Winfrey ultimately carved out a role as everybody's friend. She’s proven fearless in revealing herself and shedding more than the occasional tear – expecting (usually getting) the same from her audience and guests.
The turning point for Winfrey came in the mid-1990s when steady Phil Donahue was winding down and bawdy Jerry Springer was winding everybody up. Winfrey took what passes for the high road in television. And it's served her well. Even if all her talk about empowerment and self-actualization seems a little hippy-dippy at times, it resonates with audiences. Forget the chatter: her philanthropy and promotion of literacy speak volumes.
"You are surrounded by nothing but love," the sometimes sardonic Tom Hanks told Winfrey during the kickoff of Monday's spectacular, clearly meaning every word.
What's unclear is whether Winfrey can bring all that love – and her millions of followers – to her OWN cable channel, which hasn't exactly been a ratings juggernaut since its January debut. Winfrey, a transformative figure in television, is making a bold move at a time when media in the midst of huge change, with TV becoming more segmented as it bumps up against the Internet.
Folks like Winfrey and Carson have proven irreplaceable not only because of their ability and unique appeal, but because the new landscapes they helped create were forever altered by the time of their final bows. We’ll see whether Katie Couric, who most recently sat in Cronkite’s old seat at CBS News, can fill the Oprah gap.
Meanwhile, let’s give Winfrey some credit for devoting herself to what could be her biggest challenge yet. After his final show, Carson all-but disappeared from public life. Cronkite ably played the role of elder statesman of TV news until his death in 2009. King, at 77, is exploring new gigs, but his days as a major media force are long over.
Winfrey, at 57, isn't content to sit on a couch that was made for jumping – she still has some butt to kick.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.