The Oprah Winfrey Show became a cultural touchstone during its quarter-century run on television. Filmed in Chicago’s Harpo Studios, the talk show saw Oprah Winfrey become an important part of the lives of people all over the world. Her studio audience was almost as integral an aspect of the show as the guests – and its members all had to abide by certain strict rules.
20. Oprah accepted no gifts
The devotion Oprah inspired in her fans was fierce. And that may have led to the show’s producers setting this particular rule for her audience members. In the hand-out entitled “General Information About Attending A Taping” that was distributed to each of them ahead of filming, the following was made clear: “No gifts, cards, letters, etc. will be accepted at audience check-in.”
For one thing, letting the audience bring gifts for Oprah would likely have led to huge numbers of unwanted or unneeded items lying around the studio. In addition, on a more safety-conscious note, it would have posed security issues for Oprah to accept presents from members of the public. An uncomfortable thought, perhaps, but a sensible one.
19. You will have been thoroughly searched
Upon arriving at a taping, each and every audience member would be patted down and searched by the security team. According to the aforementioned hand-out, “Everyone attending the taping must go through a security check before entering the studio. All purses will be thoroughly searched, so please downsize.” There were no exceptions.
This was primarily another security issue. While the vast majority of people attending the show would have been genuine fans who meant no harm, that simply couldn’t be taken for granted with everyone. It was also a method of preventing leaks. The show’s producers wouldn’t have wanted any juicy details to appear in the media before the show aired.
18. You were only permitted to attend one show per season
This rule was instated due to the sheer volume of Oprah’s fans who would request the free tickets to the show. If there were no limitations enforced, those who lived locally could have applied for every single episode if they’d wanted to. And this may have led to other viewers being denied spots in the audience.
Moreover, those watching at home may have noticed the same people in the crowd all the time. Therefore, as the hand-out stated, “You may attend The Oprah Winfrey Show no more than once a season, unless specifically asked by a member of our production staff.” This undoubtedly led to a wider portion of Oprah’s fanbase having the chance to experience a live show and be seen on camera.
17. You had to follow the dress code
Oprah and her staff enforced a rule on how the audience should dress when attending a taping. In the hand-out, it stated, “Please avoid wearing all-white or all-beige clothing. Bright colors look best on camera.” The show wanted its audience to pop whenever the cameras captured their reactions, and color was a great way to facilitate this.
Influencing the attire of an audience demonstrates the attention to detail that Oprah’s team operated under. But it also reveals what a powerful position they were in. Production staff knew they could dictate what people wore, as the attendees were so excited to be there. The crew even ensured that coats weren’t allowed on-set in order to avoid noisy rustling being heard during the show.
16. Be prepared to move seats if necessary
The exacting standards of Oprah’s production team extended even to the precise placement of audience members in the crowd. The team wanted the audience to be as visually balanced as possible. And this sometimes led to them shifting people to different parts of the studio if there were, for example, too many people of one sex in a particular area.
As previously mentioned, brightly colored attire was encouraged. And according to a 2015 article on the Adventure Mom Blog, when the author attended a taping she was specifically told that wearing bright clothes would lead to better seats. That is, unless you wore the same bright color as too many other fans – then you could find yourself on the move!
15. No under-18s allowed in the audience
One of the selling points of Oprah’s show was that it would tackle topics not usually discussed on daytime television. Episodes could be high-spirited, of course, but Oprah nonetheless never shied away from more somber or controversial subjects if the occasion called for it. In fact, this apparently led to some viewers not allowing their children to see the show.
In 2009 Oprah was seen in some quarters as forward-thinking for saying that parents should speak to their daughters about sexual matters. However, other viewers and some audience members complained that the conversation was unsuitable for younger viewers. The producers later decided that “you must be 18 years old or older to attend a taping” to avoid any of these issues recurring.
14. You had to eat before you arrived at the studio
This rule may seem a bit strict, but there was certainly a logic to it. When audiences attended other shows of a similar nature to Oprah’s, they would likely have had access to a catering table. Cookies, coffee, pastries – the things people like to snack on while they wait.
Oprah offered none of this, however. In fact, her fans were encouraged to eat prior to arriving at the studio for a taping. This was likely to cut down on the potential for anyone making a mess of their clothes, which of course would make them look less pristine on television. In addition, there would also be far less of a chance of audible crunching of wrappers from the audience while the cameras rolled.
13. There was absolutely no eating in the audience, either
So, the Oprah show didn’t offer any refreshments to its audience members. But the production also didn’t allow the audience to bring in their own food. They didn’t want any of their millions of viewers seeing a glimpse of someone in the audience with their mouth wide open, about to take a bite of a sandwich!
On first inspection, the restrictions surrounding food on the set of the Oprah show could sound unnecessarily stringent. However, if you think about other live shows of a similar nature, it’s difficult to recall a single example of an audience member being shown eating. So perhaps it’s simply common practice to go hungry while the cameras are on.
12. No one was permitted to leave early
Oprah would tape two shows a day, in fact. The morning taping began at 7:30 a.m. and ended at 11:00 a.m., while the afternoon session began at 11:30 a.m. and ended at 3:00 p.m. The tickets allocated to the audience were for both tapings – and it was made very clear that they weren’t allowed to depart early.
According to the hand-out circulated for The Farewell Season: Oprah’s Surprise Spectacular, the show was trying to keep up appearances. It read, “This is a televised event and the audience will be on camera – we can’t have empty seats! If you are unable to stay the entire time for both tapings, you should cancel your ticket reservation.”
11. Be prepared to ask Oprah questions during breaks in filming
The relationship between Oprah and her fans has always been unique. Audiences were completely devoted to her, and she often returned the favor. This even extended to gaps between filming on the show, because Oprah would use that time to go into the audience and speak with her fans.
Oprah has often pushed her fans to evolve and take a keen interest in issues. As a result, it seems natural that she would want to engage with them on a personal level. In fact, it was such a regular occurrence that audience members were encouraged by producers to have a topic to ask Oprah about, should she call on them.
10. Audience participation was encouraged
Oprah was famous for her generosity towards the fans at her shows. She would do giveaways, for instance. And there were even dedicated episodes entitled Oprah’s Favorite Things in which Oprah handed the crowd books and other items she loved.
The audience was therefore expected to keep up their end of the bargain by being visibly and audibly enthusiastic, especially when receiving gifts from their idol. An energetic and loud audience, obviously enjoying themselves at the show, came across perfectly on television. It also helped translate those emotions to the viewers watching at home.
9. If you cancelled a ticket, it had to be done with 48 hours’ notice
Tickets to an Oprah taping were highly sought after, and not everyone was fortunate enough to secure one. Once a ticket had been acquired, then, the production staff very much expected the person or party to attend. However, if you wound up being unable to make it, there was a rule in place that allowed other fans to potentially snag your spot.
“If you cannot attend a taping, you should call to cancel your reservations at least 48 hours before the taping,” the hand-out stated. “If you don’t cancel, you will be unable to apply for any other tapings for the remainder of the season.” In essence, if you left the show with empty seats to fill on short notice, you were in their bad books.
8. Absolutely no cameras, cell phones or recording devices were permitted
In another effort to avoid costly leaks of the show’s content to the media, an important rule was put in place. It dictated that “no outerwear, cameras, cell phones or recording devices are permitted in the studio.” This helped maintain confidentiality, certainly, but perhaps this stipulation was also enforced due to concerns about audience image.
If the crowd were constantly staring at their phones or watching Oprah through a viewfinder, they wouldn’t look fully absorbed in the show. Nonetheless, the show’s staff weren’t completely unreasonable. Should someone bring these items to the taping, the crew would “check them and return them to you when you leave the studio.”
7. You may need to share your story
Securing tickets to Oprah was not an easy task, by any means. Demand was extremely high and spaces limited, so fans had to be patient. However, the production did offer another way of being chosen to appear on the show: “Tell Oprah Your Story.” An article on the Live About website explained this method.
“A third option to attend an Oprah Show taping is to be a guest!” the article read. “A list of current topics looking for guests appears on the homepage of oprah.com under ‘Tell Oprah Your Story’ – fill out an online form and you will be contacted by Oprah staff if they are interested in your story.”
6. You had to bring photo ID to the taping
Tickets to the show were always free of charge, which meant fans had to apply for them and give some personal details. This led to the rule that “everyone attending a taping must present a valid ID to enter the studio.” As the hand-out went on to state, “this is essentially your ticket into the taping,” in lieu of a standard ticket.
5. Be prepared that an episode could be cancelled at any time
An episode of the Oprah show being cancelled was an extremely rare occurrence, but it did happen from time to time. Therefore, a rule existed stating, “Please be aware that reservations are not guaranteed. Shows can be cancelled or change at any time.” The producers would endeavor to reschedule a cancelled booking for another taping, though.
Even this wasn’t a cast-iron guarantee, however. Indeed, it was also written into the terms and conditions of bookings that “we cannot guarantee that we will be able to reschedule you and/or your party in the event of a show date/time change or cancellation.” In addition, the show did “not reimburse travel expenses due to show cancellations.”
4. No alcohol, weapons or illegal drugs allowed
In 2010 Oprah recorded a show in Sydney, Australia, and local website News.com.au gained access to a six-page information pamphlet sent out to audience members. Many of the things already addressed on this list were highlighted. But there were also instructions for fans not to bring “weapons of ANY KIND, illegal drugs of ANY KIND [or] alcoholic beverages.”
The unique show, which was shot in front of the iconic Sydney Opera House, certainly presented some equally idiosyncratic rules. Obviously, most of these instructions seem like common sense. Perhaps, though, when a production like Oprah’s show went on tour, nothing could be taken for granted and it was better to be safe than sorry.
3. No pets were allowed in the audience
Oprah’s fans have always known about one of her true loves in this world: dogs. Over the years, in fact, she’s owned more than 20 pet pooches. And viewers will have heard her talk about them and display pictures of her beloved pets on the show. Favorites included golden retriever Luke and cocker spaniels Solomon and Sophie.
In 2014 Oprah said, “Over the years I have felt the truest, purest love – the love of God, really, I imagine that’s what God’s love feels like – is the love that comes from your dog.” Despite this, though, audiences were told not to bring their own pets to tapings. Oprah may have loved dogs, but they would have played havoc with the realities of shooting a live television show!
2. There was no camping outside the studio
Camping next to a venue to acquire tickets to an event or a new piece of technology has long been common practice among diehard fans. To this day, when the most sought-after video games are released, stores often stage midnight launches. Fans, eager to get their hands on the new item ahead of anyone else, have been known to camp outside the shops for days on end before the launch.
It stands to reason, then, that some of Oprah’s most devout fans may have wanted to camp by Harpo Studios before tapings over the years. But this was strictly forbidden. In fact, it was expressly stated in the Australian show’s six-page pamphlet: no tents were permitted to be brought along to the venue.
1. You may have to pay tax on gifts
One of the most famous moments in the history of Oprah was the 2004 episode that saw her gift every audience member a Pontiac G6 car! As each and every fan erupted into excitement and applause, Oprah yelled, “You get a car!” over and over again. The sequence subsequently became iconic.
What the audience didn’t know at the time, however, was that they were going to have to pay gift tax on their cars. The show paid for the registration and sales tax on each vehicle but couldn’t get around the gift tax. And this meant that some audience members ended up facing a $7,000 bill!