When Oprah Winfrey gave each member of the audience of her show a car during a 2004 broadcast, the cheers that greeted her were immense. And, ultimately, the moment would go on to become one of the most iconic in U.S. chat show history. Yet unbeknown to viewers, the prize would cause big problems for some of the winners.
Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, in 1954, Oprah endured a traumatic childhood, as she was allegedly sexually abused from a young age by some of her family members – among them, her uncle and her cousin. As a result, the future star decided to flee home, aged 13. Then, when she was just 14, the teenager fell pregnant; tragically, however, her premature son would die shortly after his birth.
Upon moving in with her father, Vernon, in Tennessee, though, Oprah managed to turn her life around. After working at a radio station during her high school years, she landed a local news co-anchor gig at 19. And Oprah was later given her own talk show in the Chicago area; this in turn became a ratings winner and set her on her way to world domination.
Considerable success would come to Oprah too. She picked up nominations at both the Golden Globes and Oscars for her powerful portrayal of Sofia in The Color Purple, for instance, and her eponymous chat show became a national hit to boot. The Oprah Winfrey Show was first screened in September 1986; incredibly, it would remain on the air for another 25 years.
And by the year 2000, The Oprah Winfrey Show had earned an astonishing 47 Daytime Emmy Awards. In order to give its competitors a fighting chance, then, Oprah decided to withdraw the show from the nomination process from that point on. Even so, the series remained the highest-rated of its kind, having reportedly attracted a staggering 42 million viewers a week at its peak. It also became an international success, being broadcast in nearly 150 different countries.
Oprah was hailed for introducing a more personal approach to the American chat show too. During her time on air, she tackled topics that had previously been considered taboo for a daytime audience, including matters related to the LBGT community. Furthermore, she attempted to educate her audience through self-help and literary segments as well as through discussions of current events.
And the show welcomed many memorable guests over the years. They included Kathy Bray, the mother of a ten-year-old boy who had been fatally shot by a friend, and Truddi Chase, a woman with dissociative identity disorder who claimed to have 92 different personalities. There was also Charla Nash, a woman who had been viciously attacked by a chimpanzee, and Erin Kramp, a terminally-ill mom of a six-year-old girl.
Oprah wasn’t afraid to put her own troubled private life center stage either. In 1986 she openly talked on her show about the sexual abuse that she had allegedly suffered as a child. Then, nine years later, she admitted that she’d been a cocaine user in her 20s. And in 2011 she told viewers about the half-sister who she’d only recently found out even existed.
But The Oprah Winfrey Show was just as renowned for its big celebrity appearances. In 1993, for instance, the host talked to Michael Jackson in what would be his first on-screen chat in nearly 15 years. And it was the highest-rated interview in the history of television, with an incredible 90 million people across the world tuning in to see the meeting at the King of Pop’s Neverland Ranch.
Another major pop-cultural moment occurred when an over-excited Tom Cruise appeared on the show in 2005. In what would become an infamous segment, the actor was seen jumping up and down on the set’s sofa as he publicly declared his love for future wife Katie Holmes. Oprah’s most frequent celebrity guest, meanwhile, was Celine Dion, who visited the show on 28 separate occasions.
However, the series’ most iconic moment was also arguably its most materialistic. In the opening episode of the 2004 season, the host revealed that each and every member of her studio audience would be receiving a brand-new car. The stunt cost General Motors, the manufacturer who had donated the vehicles, a whopping $8 million.
During the episode, Oprah first invited 11 teachers onto the stage to inform them of their new rides. She then revealed that there was a 12th car to be won, the key for which was concealed in one of the boxes that had been given to audience members. As each box was opened, though, it became clear that a key had been placed in every one.
But while Oprah had delivered the news to her audience, it had been her friend, Gayle King, who had initially thought up the concept. King was originally offered 25 vehicles during a meeting with a General Motors executive. After further negotiations, however, the manufacturer decided to extend the prize to every audience member.
In fact, according to 2016 podcast Making Oprah, Oprah herself was initially skeptical about the stunt. In particular, the host wanted to make sure that the giveaway would benefit people in real need of new vehicles. As a result, the audience for that particular episode was handpicked by producers, who asked potentials questions regarding the manner in which they traveled around.
And, unsurprisingly, the studio audience’s response to the prizes was one of total and utter jubilation. Oprah told the podcast, “I was screaming as loudly as I could because [the audience was] screaming so loud. I was trying to be heard over what, at this point, was just happy chaos.”
However, those cheers would later die down, as the audience would learn that their gifts weren’t entirely free. In fact, some were left with bills that may have totaled in the thousands of dollars thanks to the unavoidable gift tax in America. And show producer Lisa Erspamer has said that it was “devastating” that the stunt had left some people unhappy.
Yet Erspamer also revealed that the production team did offer a way out. Speaking to Making Oprah, she said, “We paid for the sales tax and the registration for each car. And we told the audience after: if they didn’t want to have to pay a gift tax, they could actually take cash for the car. And because we didn’t pay the gift tax, people complained to the press.”
Erspamer went on to add, “We put our whole soul into this moment of television – and with real intention to do something good. And so when people had a negative reaction, it, like, literally hurt our feelings. You know, we’re people, and it made us really sad.”
Another producer on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Terry Goulder, told the podcast that he’d ensured paramedics were on standby during the reveal – just in case someone got too overexcited. Goulder also claimed, though, that his job had been made much more difficult in the wake of the giveaway. He revealed, “It was really hard to produce shows after that, because all the audience wanted cars.”
Yet while The Oprah Winfrey Show would not stage another car giveaway, it would offer a further epic surprise. In the opening episode of the show’s final season in 2011, each member of the audience was told that they would be jetting off to Australia with the host herself. And their flight would be piloted by none other than John Travolta – a fittingly grand prize as the series drew to a close.