CHICAGO — The 25th and final season of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" starts airing Monday and the talk show host says she plans to focus on the people she thinks are responsible for the show's success: the viewers.
"This year you will see lots of surprises for other people, dreams coming true for other people, really honoring the essence of what has made this show work for the past 25 years and that's the viewer," Winfrey said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"The last season is a celebration of the past 24 years. For me, it is about holding a place of reverence and honor for the people who made this possible for me: that would be the viewers."
Harpo Productions has released a schedule highlighting the first week of new shows, but Monday's season premiere remains "top secret" with only hints of celebrity guests and a surprise musical performance.
During the remainder of that first week, Winfrey will host country music stars The Judds and revisit the city of Williamson, W.Va., where she filmed a town hall episode about AIDS in 1987. During a live Friday show, she will announce her first book club selection in nearly a year.
So what else can fans and longtime watchers expect over this season? A-list celebrities? More makeovers? An outdoor extravaganza similar to Winfrey's show that shut down Chicago's Michigan Avenue last season?
"I would anticipate that they're going to pull out all the stops," said Bill Carroll, an expert on the daytime television market for Katz Television in New York. "If any production team has that ability and certainly the Oprah folks, the folks at Harpo, have proved that over the years."
Winfrey's departure from a daily talk show on broadcast television is akin to host Johnny Carson's departure from "The Tonight Show," Carroll said.
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"People of a certain era remember Johnny Carson's last show," Carroll said. "This generation is going to, in a bittersweet way, say goodbye to this chapter of Oprah's story."
But this farewell isn't a final goodbye. Winfrey is set to launch her Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN, on cable Jan. 1. The end of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" will be featured on that network with "Behind the Scenes: Oprah's 25th Season," a one-hour series giving viewers a look at the making of the last season of Winfrey's talk show.
Winfrey describes her show, which is syndicated to 145 countries, as having a cultural impact on her viewers around the world.
"I'm learning more about that and being more accepting of what that has been as I look over these 25 years and prepare to go into the last season — hearing stories about how the show has affected people's lives over the years," Winfrey said.
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Jennifer Todd, 43, of Dothan, Ala., says she has watched Winfrey for at least the last 20 years. Todd expects Winfrey's last season to be huge and filled with charity efforts.
On her 19th season premiere in 2004, Winfrey gave a car to the nearly 300 people in her studio audience. It was a $7 million giveaway during which she famously exclaimed, "You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!"
"I think she's going to be full of surprises this year," Todd said after stopping in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood to snap photographs of Harpo Studios. "She's such a giver. I think she's going to use this as a last chance to give even bigger than before."
Janice Peck, author of "The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era," foresees Winfrey filling the season with giveaways, flashbacks and visits from past guests "who can come in and talk about how they've been affected by her."
She has hosted high-powered celebrities as Michael Jackson, Julia Roberts and John Travolta. Tom Cruise famously jumped on Winfrey's sofa to proclaim his love for wife Katie Holmes.
Winfrey's sofa has been the go-to seat for many caught up in controversy, too.
Last season, Rielle Hunter, the mistress of former U.S. senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, told Winfrey her story. And an apologetic Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, told Winfrey what was behind an offer to sell access to her former husband, Prince Andrew.
"She's going to hit the nostalgia button very strongly," Peck said.
Last November, when Winfrey made a live emotional statement announcing she would end her show after a quarter-century, she touched on her final season, too, saying, "We are going to knock your socks off."
But what does that mean for a billionaire often described as one of the most powerful women in the world? Peck thinks it will be a season filled with the kind of top-notch shows that only air during viewer-wooing sweeps periods.
"That's what knocking the socks off is," Peck said.
Kathleen Rooney, author of "Reading With Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America," said for many Winfrey fans, come Monday, it won't be the beginning of the end.
"It's not goodbye. It's see you over here in a minute," Rooney said. "There's a generation of people who don't know what it's like to live in a world without Oprah — and they're not going to find out anytime soon."
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