Phil Donahue

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Before there was The Oprah Show, there was The Phil Donahue Show. When Oprah first started her talk show in Chicago 25 years ago, Phil was the reigning king of daytime. "When I first came to Chicago, my boss at the time freed me because he said, 'We know you can't beat Donahue so don't even worry about that. Just be yourself. We're not going after Donahue's ratings,'" Oprah says. "If we'd set out to try to beat Phil Donahue, we never would have succeeded."

Oprah says she was stunned when her brand new show got higher ratings than the seasoned Donahue. "Nobody expected me to beat Phil Donahue, nor did I," she says. "So when that happened it was like, 'Whoa. What is that?' That was a huge victory for me, an overweight black woman with a Jheri curl. I didn't think he could be beaten so I wasn't trying to."

Now, in her 25th season, Oprah is looking forward to a sit-down with Phil Donahue, who has never appeared on Oprah's show. "Donahue is sort of the king for me because he opened the door and made this all possible," Oprah says. "Over the years I have never forgotten that had there not been him, there couldn't be me."

Pre-Show meeting


Senior supervising producer Jill and senior producer Terry not only plan to welcome Phil Donahue to share Oprah's stage. In the first reunion of its kind, the team has also invited four other legendary talk show hosts—Ricki Lake, Geraldo Rivera, Montel Williams and Sally Jesse Raphael.

The show is especially exciting for Harpo staffers—especially Jill, who worked at The Sally Jesse Raphael Show and Maury before coming to Harpo 15 years ago. "Oprah always says there would be no Oprah without Phil Donahue. He paved the way," Jill says. "If we take it further, if there was no Phil Donahue, there would be no me and Terry."

During the pre-show meeting, Jill tells Oprah every host is thrilled to be part of the show. "I am aware of the competition so I remember Sally Jesse was on when I started, so that was formidable competition," Oprah says. "I remember thinking, 'Okay, you gotta step up your game.' And the way you step up your game is never to try to do what anybody else is doing, but you intensify whatever it is you're doing.  Become more of yourself."

Oprah tells Jill she wants to have a deeper discussion about daytime talk before—and after—Phil Donahue. "Until Phil Donahue, we all thought the [Leave It to Beaver] image of America was what everybody else was living," Oprah says. "It was all entertainment, light and breezy, nobody would ever dare the thought of crying."
Hosts arrive


The day of taping, all five talk show hosts arrive, giddy with excitement. "The thing I loved about all our talk show hosts is they were just genuinely happy to be here," Jill says. "And then they're taking pictures and passing around their cameras and I'm taking pictures for them. To be a part of that, the energy was electric in the building."

Watch their arrivals 

When Phil arrives, he gets the rockstar treatment from Harpo staff—and all the other hosts. "We're a little more excited to meet you than any celebrity that's been on," Jill says. "Somehow it all does start with you."

"I'm happy to have been somehow responsible," Phil says. "I'm pleased to be thought of as the father of these illegitimate children—they know I'm teasing."

When it's time for taping, Jill admits she's a little nervous. "With five talk show hosts on the air there's no telling how it's going to go."

Talk show hosts backstage

Phil's up first, and the rest of the hosts join them later. "It was an honor to be in his presence," Oprah says.

See what happened during the show

Throughout the hour, the hosts reminisce about their experiences, the times they beat Oprah in the ratings and how they felt on their last show—prompting Oprah to reflect on her own journey. "It feels really good to be number one. If you're going to be in line, that's where you want to be," Oprah says. "It also means that we really have been our greatest competition. We have competed against ourselves every year."

In the end, the show is a success. "They were just so grateful to be together and so grateful to be with Oprah," Jill says. "You just felt the love. You felt the respect. You felt the admiration of each other. It was just the perfect way to end a show that really to me was quite flawless."

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