When the song goes flat, Oprah stops singing 'My Favorite Things'
For the past seven years, the big O aired her orgy of consumerist passions around Thanksgiving week, and the publicity routinely sent audiences and manufacturers into fits of apoplectic joy.
But this year, apparently because the recession has proved intractable, Oprah has realized that such a celebratory spending frenzy is not in order. Last year, she toned down the unmitigated opulence of the telecast, choosing affordable goodies and broadcasting from the unlikely locale of Macon, Ga.
This year, she has pulled the plug entirely -- just a week after pulling the plug on the series itself, which is now set to end in 2011.
With Oprah backing out of her current television series, we hereby enter the period of Lame Duck Oprah, in which the seismically powerful culture force realigns herself for her future role. Is the elimination of her "Favorite Things" a harbinger of the new, yet-to-be revealed Oprah? Or is it merely a calculation designed to telegraph empathy for the hard times so many of us are having?
Only a fabulously wealthy magnate such as Oprah would assume that sharing lavish spending tastes (some acquired by the lure of product placement) would connect with "Mom and Pop Walmart," and gradually, the broadcasts became not only must-see displays of hysterical emotional meltdowns and virtually pornographic spending excess, but also emblems for ways in which the middle- and lower-classes have been conditioned to envy the wealthy.
It's the end of an era, and not just for Oprah-related punch lines and comedy sketches. Scoring a ticket to the "Favorite Things" taping was like finding Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket, since it guaranteed in-studio audience members would go home with a delivery truck full of booty ranging from artisanal chocolate brownies to big-screen high-def TVs and laptop computers.
If you got a seat to that broadcast, you came away tens of thousands of dollars in booty, which is why a few years ago, Oprah began restricting invitations to people who deemed worthy of sharing in her self-indulgences, such as Hurricane Katrina responders (or, in the case of Macon, people really worth rewarding: her most devoted fans).
Just as the Favorite Things tickets promised Cinderella-style instant gratification for audiences, who tragi-comically sobbed with joy when the top-secret topic of the show was revealed, so did a product's appearance on the stage promise a pot of gold for businessmen. Oprah's Book Club franchise fostered a culture of Make-A-Wish-style aspirations for a generation of publishers, which in part led to O's decision to temporarily halt the feature and often restrict it to classic texts.
Favorite Things was the Godzilla version of that, spanning any product category, and the talk show host's Chicago studios were annually bombarded with tons of free swag sent by manufacturers hoping for an instant meal ticket to national dominance.
In addition to feeding the cult of personality that Oprah depends upon (just watch the ads for her syndicated show, which almost always hint that she'll be revealing something she loves), Favorite Things helped fuel a business culture of TV product placement that now feeds daily mini-frenzies on daytime shows including Ellen DeGeneres' show and The View.
Now, thanks to Oprah, if you don't come away from a taping with at least a free book or a pair of Broadway show tickets, you feel like you got a raw deal. Worse, just by watching at home, or from the boardroom, you grow jealous of the shows on which fabulous, and completely unrealistic, consumerist dreams are coming true.
With Favorite Things a memory, at least for now, we'll have to learn to revisit the American Dream.
Not the American Dream in which your dreams come true overnight, but the one that pays off after hard work and time. Remember that one?