NEW YORK _ Is it too soon to begin missing Oprah?
Why put it off? In less than two years, she will vanish from sight as a five-hours-weekly broadcast TV fixture. How could we not be feeling early pangs of withdrawal and loss? Let's go ahead and start our seven stages of grief.
For nearly a quarter-century Oprah Winfrey has been our moral arbiter, lifestyle coach and window on the world. Her show has been our church, Chautauqua and kaffeeklatsch.
She has inspired us to monitor her ricocheting weight gains and losses as a national pastime, akin to following the Dow or baseball box scores.
Along the way, she has certified the so-called "Oprah Effect," which was celebrated in a documentary on CNBC last spring. It seems her mere mention of your product or service on her show "just might make you a millionaire," thanks to Oprah's "unprecedented power of persuasion" over us viewers.
How then will we manage without Oprah as a daily TV reference point? How will we know what to read, buy or think?
Howard Rosenberg, TV critic of The Los Angeles Times, had Oprah pegged pretty well on her show's first day, back on Sept. 8, 1986.
"She's roundhouse, a full-course meal, big, brassy, loud, aggressive, hyper, laughable, lovable, soulful, tender, lowdown, earthy, raw, hungry," he wrote.
A quarter-century later, how could such a lollapalooza of a TV star desert us?
Already the date is inscribed on millions of our calendars or, at least, our wounded psyches: Sept. 9, 2011. Just 659 or so days from now. That's when "The Oprah Winfrey Show" as we have known it will end.
Making it official on Friday's program, Oprah said "the countdown to the end of `The Oprah Winfrey Show' starts now," and invited viewers to take "this 18-month ride with me."
Maybe we should take heart. Evidence suggests that the unparalleled power Oprah wields isn't going away. Oprah is a unique force of nature, and the vast store of energy she commands, like all energy in the universe, can neither be created nor destroyed. Instead, it's converted to a different form.
So Winfrey's daily syndicated talk show will be transformed into her stewardship of an entire cable network, the forthcoming OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. When it switches on in 2011 (supplanting the Discovery Health Channel), it will take its place in Oprah's sprawling multibillion-dollar media empire with her magazine, the syndicated talk shows she produces (such as "Dr. Phil," "Rachael Ray" and "The Dr. Oz Show"), a production studio, a satellite radio channel, and more.
That's not to say the farewell edition of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" isn't likely to be a TV leave-taking of epic proportions. Ahead for us on Sept. 9, 2011, think Johnny Carson's final "Tonight Show" plus Walter Cronkite signing off as anchor of "The CBS Evening News." Then triple it. A couple of times.
Why delay? Get those hankies ready.
Winfrey will be forsaking broadcast TV (take THAT, local stations!) in favor of cable. She will be vacating time slots that, between now and then, must be filled by station owners with replacement shows that viewers want to see.
Meanwhile, she will ride off into the sunset _ that is, from her longtime home base in Chicago to OWN headquarters in Los Angeles.
And then, before we start to miss her too much, we will learn for sure how she'll manifest herself on her new cable platform.
Will it be as a behind-the-scenes spiritual presence? As a pop-in guest star on the as-yet-unknown slate of shows that will span her network's schedule?
Will she carve out a fixed time and space to host a newly hatched show of her own, something similar but different from her current show that guarantees her audience continuing contact?
Probably all these things. And it's a safe bet that a quarter-century's cache of syndicated reruns will also find a place in the lineup.
Maybe there won't be anything to miss.
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org