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Talk Show Ends, and Oprah Moves On

Oprah Winfrey has taped more than 5,000 episodes of her daytime talk show, transforming television and trying to teach millions of viewers how to live life with purpose along the way. She has one more to go. She says she feels relieved.

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey

She may be the only one.

Television stations are bracing for an afternoon ratings slump without her. Publishers and publicists are contemplating what the next best show for promoting their products will be. And Ms. Winfrey’s viewers are looking for something else to watch — and many of them are wondering where to find OWN, her five-month-old cable channel, where she will host a new show on a less demanding schedule next year.

“I literally curb my enthusiasm for the end, because I realize that for the other people that are part of this experience” — like the 464 people who produce her show — “the end is a different experience than it is for me,” she said in an interview last week.

The last episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which will be televised on Wednesday, is the biggest such moment in television since Johnny Carson quit “The Tonight Show” two decades ago.

Mr. Carson walked away and did not look back; what Ms. Winfrey is doing may be much more risky. She is moving to cable, to OWN, where she wants to build a bigger business, though the early ratings have been disappointing.

“I’m not going away, I’m just changing,” she said. “I’m just creating another platform for myself, which eventually will be wider and broader than what I have now.”

Skeptics about the OWN venture abound, but Ms. Winfrey has proved skeptics wrong in the past, most notably in the mid-1990s when she turned away from tabloid fare about cheating spouses and scandalous paternity test results and talked, instead, about “living your best life” spiritually and emotionally. Surprising the television business, she held onto her viewers, and she remains the country’s most popular talk show host by far.

People around Ms. Winfrey say they sense that she is nervous about OWN. “I wish more people were watching,” she said, when asked about OWN’s weekly show about the making of her talk show. But she seems at peace with her decision, made 18 months ago, to quit her syndicated program and the demanding schedule that goes with it.

Some stations will replace “Oprah” with “Dr. Oz,” “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” or, in the fall, a show by Anderson Cooper. Others will expand newscasts.

Her departure is turning into yet another teachable moment. Her farewell tour this season has been fantastical to her fans and egomaniacal to others. All manner of anchors, actors, and authors have kissed her ring. President Obama, whom she helped to elect, dropped by last month.

Along the way she has revisited her struggles with weight and her town hall meetings on race relations, apologized to the disgraced author James Frey for not showing sufficient compassion in an interview five years ago and taken her studio audience sightseeing in Australia.

The tour culminates on Monday and Tuesday with “Surprise, Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular” that was taped last week with an audience of 13,000, and a more intimate finale on Wednesday. Commercials for the finale ask, “Where will you be?”

Last week Ms. Winfrey said she was still pondering what to say on her last episode. Many of her relatives and close friends are expected to be in the audience, including Maria Shriver, who recently separated from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Ms. Winfrey has economic motives for the pomp and circumstance, of course. Expecting a big audience for the finale, some advertisers have paid $1 million apiece for 30 seconds of commercial time. Ms. Winfrey is likely to use at least a bit of that finale to promote OWN, which is available in about 80 million homes.

Equal parts therapy and church

But no one disputes that she deserves something of a victory lap. Ms. Winfrey etched herself into the culture by revolutionizing the television talk show, making it a place where both celebrities and ordinary Americans could spill their hearts, holding her hand all the while.

She is a billionaire, but she is also a “woman of the people,” as The Detroit News said in a headline last week. She is an embodiment of success, especially for African Americans and women.

When it began in 1986, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was an expansion of a local talk show called “AM Chicago” that had begun to challenge the reigning talk show host of that time, Phil Donahue, in Chicago ratings. The first episode was titled “How to Marry the Man/Woman of Your Choice.”

Viewers gravitated to the show quickly. As the third season was about to start, Time magazine credited Ms. Winfrey’s curiosity, humor and empathy: “Guests with sad stories to tell are apt to rouse a tear in Oprah’s eye or get a comforting arm around the shoulder. They, in turn, often find themselves revealing things they would not imagine telling anyone, much less a national TV audience. It is the talk show as group-therapy session.”

It would later be compared not just to therapy, but to church.

Her format was malleable, and her array of topics was both dizzying and dazzling. In the beginning, she said in the interview, “I was just producing by the seat of my pantyhose.”

“We were living it and doing it and being a part of all the experiences we were showing,” she said. “Girls in the office were looking for men, so we did a show about how to find a good man. One of the producers had AIDS, so we started doing shows about that.”

And about race: as the most prominent African American woman in the United States, Ms. Winfrey had a powerful effect on race relations. She hosted a memorable forum in a rural Georgia county where no blacks had lived for decades, conducted experiments with her studio audience to simulate racism, and interviewed the Little Rock Nine, the black students who desegregated Central High School in 1957.

Ms. Winfrey said that in recent days she had been reading the message boards on Oprah.com where her fans had been posting farewell messages. One posting, she said, stood out as proof that the early wake-up calls and the uncertainty and the insecurity of television had been worth it.

It was from a 35-year-old woman who started watching the show at age 10 and who credited Ms. Winfrey with teaching her that life should have purpose. “When I heard that something clicked and I am now on that journey to find my calling,” the woman continued. “I don’t want to just get by in life, I want it to have a real meaning.”

She added, “Thank you, Oprah.”

It is a testament to the enduring power of television that Ms. Winfrey’s message affected so many.

Ms. Winfrey, both a child of and a product of television, said that despite talk that the Web will overpower television, “nothing can be compared to TV in terms of its reach — that you are right there in somebody’s living room, kitchen, bedroom, den, family room, in that space with them.”

“In that moment,” she said, “there’s an intimate connection.”