In Chicago, mixed feelings about end of Oprah Winfrey show

The loss of Oprah Winfrey’s show could affect local tourism and businesses in Chicago. But many Chicagoans seem unconcerned about her potential departure from the city.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Oprah Winfrey’s announcement Friday to end her daytime talk show in 2011 after 25 years sent tremors through the media landscape. It also ruined Joel Nickson’s day.

Lunchtime crowds may never be the same at Wishbone, the Southern-themed restaurant Mr. Nickson co-owns and which is located across the street from Harpo Studios, Ms. Winfrey’s studio in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. The talk show host, who once taped her show in the restaurant, is known to order takeout from there. On taping days at the studio, Nickson says, business automatically spiked 15 percent.

“I don’t think people realize how many people come in [to the restaurant] from out of town, even when there’s not a show,” Nickson says. For the neighborhood, he says, Winfrey’s decision is “depressing news in what has not been a banner year.”

What Winfrey’s multimedia powerhouse will look like after Sept. 9, 2011, the date of her last show, remains unclear and Winfrey did not drop any hints during Friday’s show, which is the last live show of the calendar year. But among regular Chicagoans, reactions to the news about Winfrey’s show has been muted.

The reason for the latter, says Chicago Tribune media critic Phil Rosenthal, is that though Winfrey first came to Chicago in 1984 as the host of “AM Chicago,” she never fully became a true Chicagoan in the manner of other local heroes, from former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka to actor Vince Vaughn.

“There’s not much Chicago in her program,” Mr. Rosenthal says. “It’s not like [David] Letterman who is out on the streets of New York. I think she benefited from having a middle American audience, but in terms of an actual association with the city, I’m not so sure.”

Once the contract for her syndicated show ends, Winfrey is rumored to be leaving for Los Angeles where she will host a new program on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, a cable channel co-owned by Discovery Communications Inc. and Winfrey’s company, Harpo Inc.

How much impact Winfrey’s departure will be in terms of lost hotel, restaurant, and limo revenue is unclear. The Chicago Office of Tourism released a statement that said Winfrey’s show “has provided Chicago with worldwide exposure and been a tremendous benefit to the city.”

The city’s convention coffers suffered a triple blow starting last week when three conventions announced they would not return to Chicago due to escalating costs at McCormick Place, the city’s lake-front convention complex.

But Illinois tourism remains relatively healthy, says Marcelyn Love, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. She says state tourism grew 20 percent over the past five years compared with six percent for the nation.

“We absolutely are saddened to hear about Oprah’s decision but it’s her choice. We’ve appreciated her work here in Illinois for 20-something-odd years,” says Ms. Love, adding, “We’re very optimistic for the future.”

Still, the news comes amid a spate of bad news for Chicagoans, including the failed bid to host the 2016 Olympics, the diminishing public approval ratings for President Obama, the city’s favorite son, and yet another losing season from the Chicago Bears. Closer to the bone is the state’s rising unemployment rate, which increased to 11 percent in October.

With all that, Winfrey’s announcement is definitely “a bruise to the ego,” says Marcus Gilmer, editor-in-chief of, a news and culture website. However, he adds that his staff did recently begin to question Winfrey’s stature in the city after readers expressed vitriol against the talk show host for shutting down of Michigan Avenue for three days in September to accommodate an outdoor taping of her show.

“People seem pretty divided on her,” says Gilmer. “She’s not someone who is constantly around.”

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