Oprah show's influence lives on

"Oprah" finale

Winfrey's last show airs at 4 p.m. today on WSOC Channel 9.

Rebecca Cannon shed more than 110 pounds in two years. Elise Heil grew up to be an inner-city teacher. Joyce Forbes decided to give her daughter a sister.

All because they happened to be in the right place at the right time: in front of a TV tuned to "The Oprah Show" - a program that has been the top-rated daytime talk show since its debut 25 years ago, a show that inspired these women (and countless others) to redirect their lives.

Today, the last original episode of Oprah Winfrey's show airs, on the heels of two star-studded installments taped last week in Chicago and aired amid much hype on Monday and Tuesday.

In all likelihood, we haven't seen the last of Winfrey. The 57-year-old media mogul launched the OWN network on Jan. 1, and speculation is she'll eventually host a similar show on the new channel. But even if Winfrey were to disappear from television forever, her impact will be felt for generations.

"My 21-year-old daughter likes to tell the story that 'If it weren't for Oprah, I wouldn't be here,'" says Joyce Forbes, 57, of Monroe. "It was 1986ish, and we considered our family complete with a very lively 5-year-old daughter. ... Then I watched an Oprah show whose guests were 'only' children.

"The one point driven home to me was how they coped after the death of their parents. ... They had felt so incredibly alone with no one to lean on who had experienced exactly the loss of those particular individuals. My reaction was 'I can't do that to Jessica!' So, a few years later, a very welcomed Joanna was born."

Media commentators have long talked about and studied "The Oprah Effect," which refers to the impact an endorsement from Winfrey can have on a business or on a piece of entertainment. When she made a selection for her Book Club, it leaped to the top of the bestseller list and stayed there. When she had a movie star as a guest, it influenced the box office. (Would you be surprised to know that Julia Roberts, one of the most bankable Hollywood stars of the past quarter-century, sat on Winfrey's couch 21 times?)

The other effect of Oprah is that one episode could change a life.

When Elise Heil was a student at Charlotte Catholic High School, she saw the "ChristmasKindness" episode in 2003 chronicling Winfrey's efforts to spread holiday cheer in parts of South Africa devastated by the AIDS epidemic.

"Elise decided that day she wanted to be a teacher and go to Africa," says her mother, Donna Heil of Charlotte. At UNC Chapel Hill, Elise searched for and participated in the Cross-Cultural Solutions Volunteer Abroad program in Ghana, using her own money to pay for the entire trip.

"Upon returning from Africa, she set up a foundation and raised thousands of dollars to send girls to school in one of the schools she worked in. The program now continues with her younger sister (Gretchen) here in Charlotte."

Elise Heil, now 24, teaches math at an inner-city school in Washington, D.C.

Positive reinforcement

An average of 9 million mostly female viewers tuned in for each episode between September 2004 and September 2005. During her most recent season, that number was 6.5 million, according to the Nielsen Company. That's a 27 percent drop, but still gargantuan numbers for daytime TV.

Part of Winfrey's appeal is that - despite being one of the richest people in the U.S. - she is relatable. She stayed true to middle America (her show has always been based in Chicago) instead of moving the show to one of the coasts. She has always been open about her own struggles with weight loss, relationships, sexual abuse. She doesn't hide her emotions, and often cried alongside her guests.

"Her program succeeded because she was so good on TV: She gave a sense of candor and sincerity that few television personalities have achieved," says Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert who teaches at Syracuse University.

Carolyn Bates, a Texas-based life coach, says: "For the most part, her message was one consistent with basic coaching - state a challenge that most people can relate to, offer suggestions for moving forward and positive reinforcement to begin. Everyone wants to believe in 'what's possible.' Smartly, she balanced sensationalism with solutions to everyday challenges."

A friend and sister

Rebecca Cannon has never met Winfrey. But the 36-year-old Charlotte woman says she found "a friend and sister in Oprah."

After severe depression led Cannon to swell to 263 pounds in 2008, she discovered "The Oprah Show," which exposed her to frequent guests Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil. Their expertise on health, relationships and "life strategy" issues inspired her to lose 113 pounds in two years.

Cannon has never been happier, and says Winfrey deserves much of the thanks.

"She personally has gone through those struggles. The reason why she is so beloved is because she shows the world the truth. It doesn't matter how much money, time, how many chefs you have, whatever - it is always such a challenge, and sometimes it can get you. She proved that you can pick yourself up ... love and forgive others and yourself."

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