The truth behind Oprah's car giveaway episode

2 min read

One of the happiest moments of television had an ugly ending.

When we think of Oprah, there are really two moments that stand out for us.

1. When Tom Cruise jumped on her couch

And, 2. When Oprah gave everyone in her audience a car

The classic meme that comes around every holiday that involves a candle as a present.

Well it turns out, that infamous episode didn’t have a happy ending.

The three-part podcast titled ‘Making Oprah: The inside story of a TV revolution’, gives a detailed analysis of how Oprah became the Queen of daytime television. 

When speaking about the infamous car giveaway episode, journalist Jenn White, explains the concept for the huge giveaway.

It all started with Oprah’s best friend, Gayle King. King sat next to an executive from the Pontiac car company on a flight and struck up a conversation.

After that chance meeting, Pontiac offered the show 25 cars for a giveaway. However, Oprah’s producers wanted more and would not stop until they were satisfied with the number of cars.

The final decision, as we all know, is that the manufacturer agreed to gift a brand new G6 to every member of the studio audience. 

The total value added up to about, in AUD, $9.84m.

Oprah was always committed to authenticity when it came to the show:

“When we sat down and started to talk about the car giveaway, I asked ‘how do we find people who really need cars?’ Because that would make it worth it to me ... that would give it a depth and an intention.” 

The producers added questions to the audience applications like, “how do you get to work?” And “how old is your car?”

“For the most part, the whole audience genuinely needed new cars, and that made it even more special,” says Terry Goulder, one of the senior producers of the episode.

After the life changing announcement that every member was receiving a car the whole room was “supercharged”.

“My heart was pounding so hard ... because I was as excited for the people getting the cars, as the people were for getting the cars.

“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.”

After the episode ended, the fun deflated and the complaints started coming in.

It was hard for producers to create a similar excitement level for every show because all the audience wanted was new cars.

Plus the gift tax became a problem. 

Producer Lisa Erspamer told the audience that if they didn’t want to pay gift tax, they could take cash of the car.

“It was devastating after, because ‘gift tax’ is a thing, and it’s always a complicated thing when you’re giving stuff away.

“But 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, and that was devastating.

“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.”

Lead Image: Getty Images/Kevin Mazur


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Written By Christina Cavaleri