In early 1984, a little-known television personality named Oprah Winfrey began hosting A.M. Chicago, a struggling morning talk show on WLS-TV. Within a month, the show rose in the rankings to become the highest-rated local talk show (before Oprah arrived, it was in last place). Within a year, the half-hour show was extended to an hour—and renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. One year later, on September 8, 1986, Oprah went national. On the 30th anniversary of The Oprah Winfrey Show’s debut, here are 15 facts about the daytime gabfest.
1. BY THE TIME THE SHOW MADE ITS NATIONAL DEBUT, OPRAH WAS ALREADY AN OSCAR NOMINEE.
Though The Oprah Winfrey Show didn’t make its national debut until the fall of 1986, American audiences were already familiar with the would-be daytime queen, though they knew her as an actress—and an Oscar-nominated one at that. Six months before she popped up on television, Oprah was in contention for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (she lost to Anjelica Huston for Prizzi’s Honor).
2. IT WAS ROGER EBERT WHO CONVINCED WINFREY TO SAY YES TO THE SYNDICATED DEAL—WHILE THEY WERE ON A DATE.
For the show’s 20th anniversary, Winfrey admitted that she had trepidations about signing a syndication deal for The Oprah Winfrey Show, and that it was Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert who convinced her to say yes. The two were on a date (their first) when Winfrey told Ebert about the offer to take her show national. According to Oprah.com, “Roger grabbed a Hamburger Hamlet napkin and started jotting down some numbers. First, he took his annual salary multiplied by two (because his co-critic at the time, Gene Siskel, made the same salary). Then, he multiplied that number by five since Oprah's show would be on five days a week. Finally, he doubled that number to reflect the hour timeframe, and then doubled it one last time because he was sure her show would be a huge hit!” He slid the napkin across the table to Winfrey, to show her what she stood to make by saying yes, to which she replied: “Done deal!”
Alas, the romance was not to be. The two did go on a second date—Ebert recalled that they went to see the Count Basie Orchestra, but that Winfrey left early as she had to be up at 5 a.m. for the show. Still, the two remained friends and Ebert made several appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
3. IT COULD HAVE BEEN JUST ANOTHER SERIES OF CELEBRITY Q&AS, HAD DON JOHNSON AGREED TO BE THE FIRST GUEST.
For her very first national show, Winfrey wanted to go big—and there were few bigger stars at the time than Miami Vice’s Don Johnson. But Johnson wasn’t into it, even after Winfrey sent him a very stylish (and very expensive) pair of rhinestone sunglasses to try and persuade him. The experience led Winfrey to make the momentous decision that her show should be about everyday people, not celebrities (well, at least not all the time). “So what we came up with was a show called ‘How to Marry the Man of Your Choice,’” Winfrey explained.
In 2010, during the premiere episode of the show’s final season, Johnson finally showed up—to return those rhinestone glasses to Winfrey. "They were all the rage and they cost a fortune," the host said.
"I know it has taken me about 24 years to get these back to you,” Johnson explained. “For clarity, I was shooting 18 to 20 hours a day at the time and it's not that I didn't wanna come, they [producers] wouldn't let me come. But I understand things have been going OK for you.”
4. WHEELING OUT THAT WAGON OF FAT IS ONE OF WINFREY’S BIGGEST REGRETS.
One of Winfrey’s most memorable moments is also one of her biggest regrets. On November 15, 1988, the hostess wheeled out a wagon full of 67 pounds of animal fat to illustrate just how much weight she had lost following a recent—and highly publicized—diet. Years later, she described that moment as a “Big, big, big, big, big, big, big mistake!,” telling Entertainment Tonight that, “When I look at that show, I think it was one of the biggest ego trips of my life.”
5. ELIZABETH TAYLOR WAS HER WORST INTERVIEW.
Like any good talk show host, Winfrey hasn’t been shy about her best and worst moments. When asked about her worst interview, Winfrey points to a sit-down with Elizabeth Taylor during the show’s second season.
“It's still painful to watch," Winfrey said, "For many reasons—including my bad hair." Just before the interview, Taylor told Winfrey that she didn’t want to talk about any of her romantic relationships. "That's kind of hard to do when you're Elizabeth Taylor and you've been married seven times," Oprah said. Taylor later apologized to Winfrey for the incident, and admitted that she was experiencing serious hip and back pain at the time, which didn’t help the interview.
6. HER INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL JACKSON IS THE MOST WATCHED INTERVIEW IN TELEVISION HISTORY.
On February 10, 1993, Oprah’s interview with Michael Jackson—which was broadcast live from the musician’s Neverland Ranch—became the most watched interview in television history (and remains as such), with 90 million people tuning in. Her closest competitors are Barbara Walters, who scored 74 million viewers with her 1999 interview with Monica Lewinsky, and David Frost, who got 45 million people to tune in to his legendary tête-à-tête with Richard Nixon. Toward the end of Jackson's interview, Elizabeth Taylor showed up!
7. ELLEN DEGENERES COMING OUT ON THE SHOW LED TO A TON OF HATE MAIL.
In 1997, comedian (and future talk show host) Ellen DeGeneres chose The Oprah Winfrey Show as the place to come out publicly as a lesbian, just before her character on Ellen did the same to her therapist, who was played by Winfrey. Both shows got a ton of publicity, and not all of it was positive. Years later, Winfrey revealed that "I played the therapist on that [episode of Ellen] ... and got the most and worst hate mail of my entire career after doing it, like 'Go back to Africa' hate mail."
8. WINFREY HAS LEFT A LOT OF MONEY ON THE TABLE.
Though she’s worth a reported $2.9 billion, Winfrey once told Fortune that “I don’t think of myself as a businesswoman,” and she has proven that refusing to sell out can be a profitable business in and of itself. While most celebrities would see having a mega-hit talk show as a great money-making opportunity, Winfrey—who is regularly cited as one of the world’s most generous celebrities—wasn’t about that. Throughout the show’s run, she refused to let the promise of big bucks sway her. The show didn’t enter into licensing deals or paid endorsements, even though she had plenty of companies banging at her door to become one of her “Favorite Things” or to see their latest releases as part of her Book Club. But Winfrey’s recommendations were all her own.
9. “THE OPRAH EFFECT” WAS HUGE.
Though Winfrey’s affections for a product or service couldn’t be bought, when she did tell her audience about something she liked, they listened—and spent. Known as “The Oprah Effect,” her Book Club had the power to turn an author from an unknown to a bestseller, and even a brief mention of a beloved product by Winfrey could see that item’s sales go into overdrive. When Winfrey mentioned that she owned a LightWedge book light, the company saw its sales increase from $3700 per day to $90,000 in a single afternoon.
10. SHE WAS SUED BY A GROUP OF TEXAS CATTLEMEN.
Just as Winfrey had the power to boost any business, a bad review could take it away. During a 1996 episode about mad cow disease, Winfrey admitted that a conversation with a vegetarian activist who told her about the dangers of a mad cow disease outbreak in America had stopped her “cold from eating another burger." A group of Texas cattlemen were not pleased with Winfrey’s comment, and filed a defamation suit, claiming her remark led to $11 million in losses. In 1998, the court sided with Winfrey, who declared that "Free speech not only lives, it rocks." (She also confirmed that she was “still off hamburgers.”)
11. THAT FAMOUS CAR GIVEAWAY COST $8 MILLION.
In 2004, Winfrey surprised her audience in a big way when she gave all 276 members of her studio audience a brand-new Pontiac G6. Winfrey wasn’t lying when she famously (and meme-worthily) exclaimed, "You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!" The total cost of those cars? Just under $8 million. (Earlier this year, John Oliver trumped that total by paying off $15 million of medical debt.)
12. YES, EVERYONE WHO GOT A CAR HAD TO PAY TAXES ON IT.
While winning a brand-new car on television might seem like the ultimate high, it does come with some strings (as winners on The Price is Right can certainly attest). And for some members in the studio audience that day, the tax bill for that new car was as much as $6000. “That responsible part of me stepped forward and wondered 'where am I going to get the money to pay the taxes?,'" said William Toebe, who was at the show with his wife—which meant two cars and two tax bills. But it turned out well for them: they took the cars, sold them immediately, and made enough of a profit to pay off some other bills.
13. SHE STOPPED SUBMITTING THE SHOW FOR EMMY CONSIDERATION.
In 2000, after winning 47 Daytime Emmy Awards—including a Lifetime Achievement Award—Winfrey refrained from submitting her show for any further Emmy consideration. She reportedly wanted to make more room for others in the daytime arena to be nominated, and win.
14. IT’S THE LONGEST-RUNNING DAYTIME TALK SHOW.
When The Oprah Winfrey Show aired its final episode on May 25, 2011, it had been on the air for just shy of 25 years, making it the longest-running daytime talk show.
15. HER BOOK CLUB IS STILL ACTIVE.
Though not as regular, Oprah’s Book Club was reintroduced in 2012. Now known as Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, her recommendations are doled out via OWN and O: The Oprah Winfrey Magazine. So far, she has only recommended a handful of books—the most recent one being Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, which was released last month.