Oprah's Still Full of Surprises

Discovery of long-lost sister is helping Winfrey go out on top as she comes into her OWN.

By Jere Hester
|  Monday, Jan 24, 2011  |  Updated 6:30 PM PDT
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Celebrity Hookups: Jodie Foster

AP

Oprah Winfrey greets her half-sister Patricia on an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" taped at Harpo Studios in Chicago. On the show that aired Monday, Jan. 24, 2011, a sometimes-emotional Winfrey introduced Patricia, explaining how the woman's years-long search for her family culminated in a meeting with Winfrey on Thanksgiving Day of last year.

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The big news revealed by Oprah Winfrey's on her show Monday – she has a long-lost half-sister – certainly packed surprise along with the requisite emotion. But in some respects, the show shouldn’t have been all that much of a shock.

      After a quarter-century of reunions, self-help segments and weepy confessionals, viewers should hardly be surprised that Winfrey can still pull off a stunner of show – especially when she's sharing a piece of her life.
              
Winfrey, who said she decided to go public with the news before it could be leaked to the press, also clearly is determined to go out on top when her daytime show comes to an end in September. She's leaving to tend fulltime to her new baby: the Oprah Winfrey Network, which went on the air this month.
                            
It's significant that Winfrey didn't save the reunion for a special on OWN, whose high debut ratings quickly dropped. She certainly knows her old-school platform still wields more clout – and that the publicity can only help her cable outfit.

Winfrey is trying to expand her foothold amid a rapidly changing media and talk show landscape. Larry King is done with CNN and Regis Philbin is on his way out. Like Winfrey, both showed great staying power. Both septuagenarians say they're not retiring, but King's days as a major force in broadcasting are over and Philbin's likely will end with his final signoff on “Live! With Regis and Kelly.”

Winfrey, at 56, is determined that her next act will be her greatest as she constantly pushes OWN as our TV-paved path to “self-realization.” But the touchy-feely, New-Age-for-the-masses speak belies what Winfrey proved Monday: She’s the queen of daytime talk because she knows how to produce compelling TV that gets people talking.

Winfrey, who only recently learned of her half-sister's existence, called the discovery the "miracles of all miracles." That's a bit of an overstatement, but there's little doubt many viewers' heartstrings were plucked during the show, a tearjerker that was handled with class, largely devoid of the stench of exploitation.

"I thought nothing could surprise me anymore," Winfrey said. "But let me tell you, I was wrong."

Monday's show might prove more memorable than her previous most-talked about episodes - Free cars for everybody! We're going to Australia! That’s because her program always has worked best not when it turns into a game show, but when it taps into anger, shock, sadness, longing, controlled confrontation and catharsis.

And the show is at its strongest, as it was Monday, when Winfrey’s at center stage – which should surprise nobody.
 

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.

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