Television

Oprah Power! : Indian talk show hosts reflect on the impact and style of the empress of the talk show genre

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Talk about talk show power.

Oprah Winfrey, who turns 50 next week and marks the occasion with a public, three-day celebration, including a live broadcast from her Chicago studios on the big day, has in the last two decades, done something that few talk show hosts, of any colour, race or gender have managed.

A book mention by Oprah shoots it to the bestseller lists, a reference to her conversion to vegetarianism after the Mad Cow disease outbreak results in a $12 million loss to the beef industry in the US....the Oprah impacts are endless, although some are less tangible than the aforementioned.

India may yet have to produce an Asian equivalent of an Oprah, but talk show hosts here, some openly and some grudgingly, concur that Oprah - the show and the personality - are an awesome twosome. For two decades, the bundle of energy as she bounds across studios in television homes all over the world, eliciting opinion, offering advice and collecting suggestions, has influenced viewers of every hue.



"Oprah‘s compassionate without being condescending" - Mita Vashisht

 Criticism that most of Oprah followers are victims of psychological disorder notwithstanding, the show continues to pull in the ratings - her TV talk show has been the top-rated daytime show for 17 of the 18 seasons it has been on air. She made more money between June 2002 and June 2003 than any entertainer other than Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, according to Forbes magazine. From incest to adultery to obsession with pets and weight fluctuation - no subject is taboo on the Oprah Show.

The success of the show, although heavily dependent on Oprah‘s personality, is also due to the fact that a lot of time and money is pumped in on research, studios, audiences and camerawork, believes Mita Vashisht, the firebrand actor who substituted as anchor on Sab TV‘s Kuch Diiil Se for a month when regular anchor Smriti Z Iraani took a break. Vashisht, who says she felt stifled in KDS due to the lack of movement and breath in the studio, feels Oprah succeeds because her studio is ‘not one static space‘. "While the properly placed cameras record every inflection on Oprah‘s face, there is a lot of movement in the studio, and we even get a feel of what Oprah is thinking even when other people are talking," says Vashisht.



"Oprah looks approachable" - Smriti Z Iraani

That Oprah combines an attitude that is compassionate without being condescending and detached without being judgmental adds to the charm, says Vashisht. Agrees Irani, who has returned to anchor KDS, "Oprah looks approachable despite the fact that she has reached a position of wealth and power. She continues to work hard and has not lost her touch with people." Iraani also feels that Oprah‘s ability to take up ‘human issues‘ that are not too academic to discuss but are fielded by common sense has helped her to become the phenomenon that she is today.

A phenomenon she certainly is. According to reports, Winfrey has started The Angel Network, an organization that collects millions of dollars a year for charities. She publishes her own magazine, called O, and has her own cable television network, Oxygen. Her personal worth exceeds $1.1 billion - making her one of two African-Americans on the Forbes billionaire list, along with Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television. Ratings for The Oprah Winfrey Show are up 14 per cent over last year, and just recently, she won the People‘s Choice Award for Favourite Talk Show Host. And she just signed a new contract that will keep her on TV at least through the 2007-2008 season.



Oprah‘s going to be on screen at least till 2007 -2008

Television "is the best forum in the world," Oprah told CNN‘s Larry King last month, when he asked her about running for the post of US vice-president.



"Oprah gives space to others to talk" - Renuka Shahane

One of Oprah‘s keys to popularity is the fact that she has bared almost her whole life to her audiences over the years, including facets of her sexually abused childhood and her foray into drugs in adulthood. That, according to Renuka Shahane, who hosted the niche talk show Kashmakash on Star Plus a few years ago, adds to her allure. "She is not scared of airing her views and has a very in-your-face kind of style, which is perhaps quite American," laughs Shahane.

Importantly, Oprah gives others space to talk on their shows, points out Shahane, when usually, personality driven talk shows often end up with the hosts doing most of the talking. Reflecting on the many episodes of Oprah she has watched over the years, Shahane says Oprah‘s charm also lies in bringing all subjects under discussion to an identifiable level and also playing the role of an ordinary person, and exuding a very human aspect.



"Being the underdog works in Oprah‘s favour" - Kiran Joneja

Kiran Joneja, who anchored the Kiran Joneja Show for a while on Star Plus two years ago, and met the producers of Oprah to get a feel of producing her own show, says being African American also gives Oprah the extra edge. "Being the underdog, so to speak, also works in her favour as a host," says Joneja. "She herself has had a tough life, making it easy for her to understand others, as also for others to open up better to her," she feels. While meeting the producers, Joneja also learnt that Oprah goes through all her mail herself late at night, reads all her letters personally to keep hands on with the show, despite a big team at her disposal.

So, what stops India from producing an Oprah?

"For Oprah, the budgets are great, the research team is huge," sighs Joneja. "Out there, she can get anyone flown in from any part of America to be on her show. In India, we are fighting a lot of odds - budgets wise. It‘s difficult to make a talk show and sustain it in these circumstances," she opines.

Fumes Mita, "Out here, we don‘t even have an authentic audience. To make a good talk show, you need time, money and energy spent on every topic. But the producers here are not interested in good quality programming."



Childhood snapshots - Oprah‘s life history is open domain

While Iraani is hopeful that India, where television itself is in a nascent stage, could still throw up good talk shows and hosts 20 years hence, Shahane feels it is the viewers that are partially to blame for the dearth of good talk shows here. "Our audiences have no attention span for talk shows." Agrees Joneja, "Audiences here are too immature yet, people are still feasting on entertainment led programming."

Till a local role model comes along, hosts here then seem to be learning and hoping for better times for Indian shows, taking a leaf out of Oprah Winfrey, the phenomenon that turns 50 to universal applause this week. Except for some, perhaps. Neena Gupta, who anchored a talk show on B4U, Manthan some years ago, puts it tersely, "I haven‘t watched any Oprah Winfrey shows."

Oh.

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