It’s been quite a run. Oprah launched her nationally syndicated talk show in 1986, seven years before the arrival of Ms. Stewart, who, except for a brief 2004 stay in West Virginia, has been on the air nonstop since 1992. Between the two of them, Ms. Stewart and Ms. Winfrey were a tag team of ’90s empowerment that ushered their viewers—women that the economic boom had enabled to “opt out” of the workforce—away from the mind-numbing hell of endless soaps and channeled their latent ambition into near-militant homemaking and a determination to live their “best life.”
How could that not be a good thing?
There was a nice balance between them. If Ms. Stewart’s topiaries began to seem symptomatic of some Apollonian psychosis, we could always flip to Oprah, where “spiritualist” Iyanla Vanzant taught self-love so complete it bordered on onanism. Ms. Stewart stuck to surfaces and Ms. Winfrey plumbed our psyches, but both shows were built upon a similar promise of feminine self-betterment. Anything we missed on TV we could catch up on via their dueling monthly magazines, Martha Stewart Living and O: The Oprah Magazine, which took up the mantle of the antediluvian “Seven Sisters.”
Ms. Winfrey’s spirituality (to say nothing of her BMI and her feelings regarding her BMI) was a work in progress she tended to for our entertainment. When she wasn’t propagating delusional self-help programs (what was The Secret, again?), her bread-and-butter spots were a parade of Mall of America grotesques not so different from those of predecessor Phil Donahue. But while we sneered at Maury and Springer, Ms. Winfrey’s quickness to relate her guests’ stories to her own lifetime of adversity set off a chain reaction of transference. We gawked at them until we identified with them until we—cut to the studio audience, quivering, dabbing their eyes—sobbed along with them.
Her couch was the first stop for celebrities seeking public redemption. It was where Michael Jackson explained that his skin had lightened due to an obscure disorder, where Tommy Hilfiger promised that he never said he didn’t want black people to wear his clothes, and where James Frey was excoriated for fudging his memoir, which we’d read only because Oprah had recommended it.
While Ms. Stewart was frostily autocratic, Ms. Winfrey had the homey wisdom to know the difference between the things she could and could not do, as the 12-steppers say, plus the money to employ an army of gurus to cover for her weaknesses. Rather than keep this privileged life under wraps, she introduced us to her menagerie of specialists: her private chef, her personal trainer, Chicago’s hottest decorator, a renowned cardiac surgeon who advocated alternative medicine, the ex-psychologist who gave her legal counsel in her case against Texas cattlemen, and the sweat-lodge evangelist later convicted of negligent homicide.
The most faithful of them reaped unimaginable rewards, with posts on a Mount Olympus of syndicated spin-offs. As for the implements of fulfillment that couldn’t be taught on daytime television (high-thread-count sheets, personal digital assistants, tummy-tucking undergarments), she could always dole them out on the orgiastic annual “Favorite Things” giveaway spree.
This time last year, the launch of OWN was the talk of the Television Critics Association press tour, from Ms. Winfrey’s messianic news conference to the glitzy cocktail party packed with Oprah’s friends-turned-network costars. There was Gayle King, Ms. Winfrey’s loyal sidekick, and Dr. Laura Berman, Oprah’s talk radio sexpert, and Suze Orman, the credit card wizard. You get a show! And you get a show! And you get a show!
As The Oprah Winfrey Show wound down in May, reunion specials spiked ratings, giving the impression Ms. Winfrey had bested Ms. Stewart for good. That month, shares of MSLO dipped below $5 and the company brought in the Blackstone Group to advise on a potential sale.
But since then, Ms. Winfrey’s cultural stock has also taken a hit. Between sporadic scheduling and OWN’s unfortunate spot on the cable lineup, Oprah’s audience drifted away. So in July, Ms. Winfrey named herself CEO of the network, which launched a campaign instructing viewers where to find it.
At the same Television Critics Association event this year, all eyes were on Ms. King, but not, for once, because of any affiliation with Ms. Winfrey. In a recent overhaul, CBS made Ms. Winfrey’s consigliere coanchor of This Morning, alongside Charlie Rose and Erica Hill.
Asked if Ms. Winfrey would be making any guest appearances, Ms. King hedged.
When it made sense, she replied.