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In 1961, the first television talk show hosted by an African American debuted on WRCV-TV in Philadelphia. The Del Shields Show was sponsored by a local brewery, which was trying to tap the segregated liquor market. The program was hosted by thirty-year-old Del Shields, an assistant television director, who had also worked as a radio disc jockey since the late 1950s. In only a matter of weeks The Del Shields Show was unceremoniously cancelled, a casualty of white backlash in the City of Brotherly Love. A few years later, in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Shields lamented his participation in TV's aborted experiment with racial integration: "[I]t only took 50 letters saying 'Get that nigger off your show or we'll stop drinking your beer' to make the sponsor drop the program. I limped away from that one" (qtd. in Berg). [End Page 169]
Fast forward to 1984, when another breakthrough in black-hosted TV talk-showmanship was underway. Thirty-year-old Oprah Winfrey, a ten-year veteran of local television news and talk, took the helm as anchor of A.M. Chicago. In only a matter of months, A.M. Chicago out-rated the rival Phil Donahue Show in the thirty-one markets where they went head to head. The surprising success of A.M. Chicago was not a television anomaly: in the same year, a new sitcom centered on a middle-class black family and called The Cosby Show rocketed to number three in the Neilson ratings. A year later, as Cosby began its four-year reign atop prime time ratings, A.M. Chicago was reborn as The Oprah Winfrey Show andquickly became the highest rated daytime talk show, a perch it would hold for years to come. The national embrace of black celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby—who play the part of beloved girlfriend and favorite father, respectively—was spectacular evidence of the progress made toward racial equality on the airwaves in the twenty-five years since The Del Shields Show.
Winfrey and Cosby shared then as now not simply an African-American heritage but—perhaps more importantly—their reciprocal embrace of middle-class values, particularly as they relate to personal accountability and virtuous uplift. I would argue that this along with their celebrity status has vaulted them into national prominence as moral guardians. Recently, Cosby has set his sights on reforming what he perceives to be an indolent black underclass while Winfrey turned her cameras on the misery inflicted on the hurricane Katrina victims, who were overwhelmingly poor and black.
It is a tribute to Winfrey that she has exploited her business acumen not merely to turn a profit but also to engage many of the most pressing issues of our time. A recent example: soon after hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Winfrey's philanthropic Angel Network organization donated $10 million to Katrina disaster relief efforts. If any TV celebrity today deserves beatification, it is Winfrey. Her populist appeal and genuine sense of civic responsibility coupled with her inimitable entrepreneurial success make Winfrey a compelling subject for critics. Yet, in the two decades since The Oprah Winfrey Show went into syndication, scholars have been somewhat slow to respond the Oprahfication of American culture. While the commercial press began publishing books on Winfrey as early 1987, it wasn't until the early nineties that the occasional essay or book chapter on The Oprah Winfrey Show appeared in academic publications. Since 2003, however, a...