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As Oprah Winfrey airs last episodes, fans praise her show's message

Oprah Withdrawal Syndrome. Winfrey Departure Disorder.

Whatever snarky name critics dream up, Sara Blakely is pretty sure she's going to get it. Bad.

The Clearwater native has been recording and watching the Oprah Winfrey Show steadily for at least 15 years, since she was 25.

So when Winfrey wraps up her show Wednesday after 25 years as TV's most popular daytime talk personality, fans like Blakely know it might feel more like a death in the family.

"I'm going to suffer … I'm already thinking about how to get the old DVD sets," she said, calling from her new home in New York City. "She's a positive message in a sea of television that is mostly mindless. She really encouraged all of us women to be the best that we could be ourselves."

Blakely wasn't just speaking in the general sense. Because as the inventor of the shapewear garment known as Spanx, she's also an illustration of something media experts call the Oprah Effect, Winfrey's ability to turn a product into a multimillion-dollar consumer brand, just by mentioning its name.

"A couple of years ago, she looked into the camera and said 'I've given up wearing panties, I wear Spanx,' "said Blakely, noting that her undergarment company now has $350 million in sales each year. "We sold 20,000 pairs that day alone, and the show wasn't even about my product. Oprah represents all of the girls I'm trying to find."

Leaving a broadcast perch reaching an estimated 7-million viewers daily may make it tougher for the Queen of All Media to move pop culture the way she did to help Blakely (who responded by donating $1 million to Winfrey's school for girls in South Africa).

But even as her fans mourn her passing from the broadcast landscape as she nurtures her new Oprah Winfrey Network on cable, Winfrey herself feels the exact opposite.

"Lots of people say it's bittersweet; I say it's all sweet, no bitter," she said in a recent interview with the Baltimore Sun. "I've done as well as I know how to do. And so, it's time to go and do the next thing. I'm open to whatever the next chapter brings me for that reason; I've done this as well as I can do it."

A juggernaut we won't see again

Experts agree: Winfrey has created such a solid bond with her fans, there hasn't been a departure with this much impact on TV since 1992. That's the year Tonight Show host Johnny Carson stepped down after 30 years spent defining the shape of late-night television.

And because there's so much more competition now than when Winfrey started a quarter century ago, there many never be another figure like her again.

"There's been bigger-rated TV shows, but as someone who really defined a day part and genre, there's no one bigger," said Brad Adgate, director of research for New York ad buying firm Horizon Media (one estimate pegged prices for 30-second commercials in Wednesday's show at $1 million each). "You think of what a revenue juggernaut she's been, feeding audience to local newscasts across the country. She is going to leave a big void."

(In September, Tampa NBC affiliate WFLA-Ch. 8 is expected to replace its 4 p.m. Oprah broadcast with Dr. Oz, the daytime medical talk show hosted by her protege, Mehmet Oz.)

Her achievements stretch from becoming the first black woman to land on Forbes' list of richest Americans to creating the quickest magazine startup in history (O magazine) and minting the careers of superstars such as Dr. Phil McGraw, Rachael Ray and Suze Orman, among many others.

But her greatest accomplishment may be creating a singular voice for mostly white, mostly middle-class women on television. It's a particular achievement for a black woman with roots in serious poverty, who built her image on TV before our eyes.

"She's capitalized on women's tendency to fall in cliques and follow the most popular girl," said Robyn Okrant, a playwright and yoga teacher who spent 2008 living her life according to rules articulated on Winfrey's show and in her magazine, eventually writing the 2010 book, Living Oprah. "It seems that she gives us a chance to live life risk-free. But what I really found, was that it was exhausting."

Everything from kissing her husband (at least 10 seconds each day) to arranging her finances was done according to rules articulated on Oprah. Which meant sometimes Okrant was following strictures the host herself didn't obey, as when Winfrey told fans to cut out sugar one day before eating ice cream from Coldstone Creamery on camera.

Still, such contradictions only highlighted Winfrey's strength, the author said. "She communicates like every other woman; she's empathetic, shares advice and just wants to help us all out," Okrant added. "I went into this project thinking she has too much power, but she has the power we give her. And we've fallen in love with a brand."

Will her viewers follow her?

Part of that love may stem from her influence. Fans flock to her Oprah Book Club selections, knowing she can bend bestseller lists to her will, and track her Favorite Things episodes knowing they will become highly-prized status symbols.

Will that track record continue when she moves to OWN, which usually draws ratings 30 times smaller than her syndicated show?

"Her show now is a community bulletin board; you can find news about medicine, movie stars meditation," said Kitty Kelley, the celebrity biographer whose 2010 unauthorized book, Oprah: A Biography, drew tough questions on its accuracy and gossipy tone. "The question is: Will fans used to that regular contact make the pilgrimage to cable?"

Kelley said Winfrey balances a need for adoration and goodwill from most with a fierce drive to control her image. "She feels that she is an instrument of God; a divine messenger sent to teach us how to live our best lives," the author said. "And she hasn't really faltered yet, professionally."

The details of Wednesday's series finale remain a mystery, following two highly publicized shows filmed last week at the United Center in Chicago that featured stars such as Michael Jordan, Tom Cruise, Maria Shriver, Madonna and many more. The second of those airs today; the first aired Monday.

But regardless of how the broadcast show ends, fans like St. Petersburg resident Chris Giblin expect to follow Winfrey across the cable dial to her next chapter.

"It's not like she gave women a voice; a lot of us had our voices before, we just had to learn how to use them," said Giblin, who is such a fan, she brought a homeless woman to see Winfrey's Live Your Best Life tour stop in Tampa back in 2002, hoping to inspire her. "I think it's going to be fascinating to see what she comes up with next."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Set your DVR

Oprah Winfrey's last two new broadcast shows air at 4 p.m. today and Wednesday on WFLA-Ch. 8.

As Oprah Winfrey airs last episodes, fans praise her show's message 05/23/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 23, 2011 11:35pm]
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