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WINFREY ZEROING IN ON DONAHUE

What’s Oprah Winfrey like? Inquiring minds want to know.

She’s roundhouse, a full-course meal, big, brassy, loud, aggressive, hyper, laughable, lovable, soulful, tender, lowdown, earthy, raw, hungry. And she may know the way to Phil Donahue’s jugular.

It was 3 p.m. Monday, opening salvo of “Oprah Winfrey,” the newly syndicated Chicago talk show whose 138-station lineup includes KABC-TV Channel 7 in a critical Los Angeles market where the top competition is “Donahue” on KNBC Channel 4.

Was she nervous? “I have hives under my armpits,” she told the camera.

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Oompah, Oprah.

Donahue’s entertaining, often stimulating long-running show is still a national champ. Yet Oprah trounced him in the Chicago ratings, earning this much-publicized coast-to-coast shot for the versatile Winfrey, a 1985 Oscar nominee for her role as Sofia in “The Color Purple.”

And Los Angeles Nielsen ratings for the first three days of this week bode poorly for “Donahue” here too. Donahue won Monday with a 26% audience share to 23% for Winfrey. But Winfrey clobbered Donahue Tuesday, 30% to 18% and won again on Wednesday, 29% to 22%.

There’s far more at stake than talk-show ratings, though. “Donahue” and “Oprah Winfrey,” which succeeds “Tom Snyder” on Channel 7, are the all-important lead-ins for the 4 p.m. newscasts on their respective Los Angeles stations, which run first and second in the news ratings. And those local newscasts are the gateway to the evening TV schedules. Big, big stakes.

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This is war!

That’s why Donahue, who moved his show to New York from Chicago in 1985, is taping in Los Angeles this week, doing a high-speed tap dance. And that’s why the promos have hit the fan, and Channel 4 and especially Channel 7 this week have used their 4 p.m. newscasts to hype their respective talk shows under the guise of news.

So much for ethics.

And so much for the Oprah oomph. Really, now, is this all there is? When does the magic start?

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If initial episodes are a sample, “Oprah Winfrey” is little more than low-brow “Donahue.” Same format: the host roams the studio audience with a microphone getting questions for her guests and occasionally taking a phone call from a viewer.

Winfrey hopes to make the difference through sheer force of personality.

Donahue himself is a dominating performer, and one with no apparent distaste for gratuitously titillating topics when ratings beckon. On its good days, though, his show imparts information. Based on this week, “Oprah Winfrey” imparts Oprah Winfrey. She’s less articulate, cerebral and polished than Donahue, but more explosive and unpredictable.

“How many guys here have slept with a girl on the first date?” she asked the audience on her premiere. It was that kind of show in that kind of week.

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They were off. On Monday, Winfrey threw “How to Marry the Man of Your Choice” at Donahue’s “Mayflower Madam.” On Tuesday, he answered her “Feuding Families” with an hour of “Baby Jesse.” She met his “Divorced Couples Face Off” Wednesday with a rip at “People of the Aryan Nations.” They took no prisoners Thursday: Donahue’s “Designer Drugs” versus Winfrey’s “Women Molested and Raped by Their Doctors.”

Winfrey’s Monday show was classic “Dating Game” mentality. She brought on the author of a book about snaring guys and two other experts in the same illustrious field. “Your problem is,” Winfrey began (this was going to be heavy), “you’re in the elevator, you see a good-looking guy, what do you say?”

It went down shaft from there, the hour climaxing in a frenzy of advice, with one of the experts urging male-hunting women to wear no jewelry, another pleading for “skirts, skirts, skirts.”

On Tuesday, Winfrey took an in-depth look at those “feuding families”:

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Two white sisters weren’t speaking to each other because one had told their mother that the other was dating a black man. The other sister had stopped speaking because she wasn’t being spoken to.

Two black sisters weren’t speaking because one owed the other $50 and had not returned two wine glasses she borrowed. “She knows how I feel about my wine glasses,” the accusing sister said.

A mother and daughter weren’t speaking because the mother hadn’t attended her daughter’s wedding. She didn’t approve of the marriage. Then the daughter’s husband rose and confronted the mother.

The episode might have ended on this soaring note, except the hour was only half over. Sohhhhhhh. . . .

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Winfrey brought on a feuding-families therapist, who was also a rabbi. Then other feuding families in the audience rose to give their own testimony, and Winfrey revealed after a station break that two feuding family members had made up right there in the audience, and it was very touching, and you wondered why all these people who couldn’t stand each other agreed to appear on the show together in the first place. And you also wondered where Winfrey’s staff found them. Are there agents for feuding families? Halfway houses? Are feuding families listed in the Yellow Pages?

When it was all over, the two white sisters still weren’t speaking to each other, nor were the two black sisters (maybe if she sent back just one of the glasses . . . ); neither were the mother and daughter.

Typically, Winfrey was speaking to everyone, including Channel 7 anchors Harold Greene and Tawny Little, who interviewed her via satellite near the end of the 4 p.m. newscast. Winfrey chided Donahue about being in Los Angeles. “You gotta go home sometime, Phil.” And Greene wished Winfrey luck because “you’re our lead-in out here.”

But the newscasts were feuding, too, for Channel 4 anchors John Beard and Kirstie Wilde were simultaneously interviewing Donahue in the studio, reviewing his just completed “Baby Jesse” episode, letting Donahue answer Winfrey’s charges that she drove him from Chicago.

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“It’s good to have you in L.A.,” Beard told Donahue. Was he speaking for himself? Channel 4? All of Los Angeles? Or just Burbank?

No time to dwell. It was on to the third day and, for Winfrey, those hate-spewing, ratings-spewing “People of the Aryan Nations,” a volatile white supremacist group whose leaders acknowledge ties to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan and must have been elated at this prime TV exposure.

They said they disliked all non-Aryans, but especially Jews, whom they accused of wanting to “mongrelize” all races.

It was particularly ironic to see Winfrey, a black, coolly interview these racists. She brought on “undercover reporter” Peter Lake, who showed footage of the Aryan Nations in operation and accused members of the group of violent acts, including murder. Then Winfrey brought on ABC News reporter Judd Rose, who showed ABC footage of a member taking target practice on a photo of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and adding, “He ain’t got no hook nose no more.”

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Wild charges followed, and Winfrey was really cooking by the end of the emotional hour when she sweet-talked and draped her arm over the shoulder of a man in the audience who seemed to sympathize with the white supremacists on the panel.

It was good TV, all right, but was it wise TV?

The always inspiring Little supplied the definitive answer in a Channel 7-serving Oprah epilogue on the 4 p.m. newscast, telling David Lehrer of the Anti-Defamation League: “You have to be thrilled about a show like Oprah’s today.”

Lehrer replied that no, he wasn’t exactly thrilled, but that at least Winfrey’s provided more rebuttal than did an earlier “Donahue” episode devoted to the white supremacist Posse Comitatus.

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Asked if Winfrey erred in putting the Aryan Nations on TV, Lehrer replied that it was a “close call.”

Here’s another opinion: It’s an easy call. No free air time.

When racists are legitimate news, cover them. When they’re propagandizing, ignore them. The issue is not free speech, but free air time. The Aryan Nations wasn’t making news Wednesday. It was making rating points for “Oprah Winfrey.” In doing so it was getting a crack at a national TV audience and, while exposing itself to ridicule, also gaining a measure of respectability by being associated with an establishment TV host. And a black one, to boot.

It’s been an eventful start for “Oprah Winfrey.” Feuding families sandwiched between an hour of male-hunting and an hour of Jew hunting, all in the name of Nielsen hunting.

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NBC is fortunate. It has hits to burn and, it hopes, ratings to spread around.

So continuing its smart policy of sneak previewing some of its new series behind established hits, NBC is showcasing “Easy Street” at 9:30 p.m. on two consecutive Saturdays, behind much-loved, much-funnier “Golden Girls.” Thereafter, “Easy Street” will air in its less cushy regular time slot of 8 p.m. Sundays behind another new series, “Our House.”

Nothing ruins good strategy like bad product, though.

Produced and directed by Hugh Wilson (“WKRP in Cincinnati”) and premiering this weekend (on Channels 4, 36 and 39), “Easy Street” is another of this season’s new “move-in” series that shift characters to alien environments as a way of contriving conflict.

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Loni Anderson (another “WKRP in Cincinnati” alumnus) plays widowed former showgirl L.K. McGuire who inherits her husband’s fortune. Naturally, she asks her seedy Uncle Bully (Jack Elam), whom she hasn’t seen since she was 9, to move into her Beverly Hills mansion. Naturally, she also invites Uncle Bully’s seedy sidekick (Lee Weaver). Naturally, Uncle Bully resists. Naturally, L. K. convinces him to change his mind. Naturally, Uncle Bully will end up clashing with the sniffy relatives of L. K.'s husband.

Naturally--despite the presence of that enjoyable comic actor Elam--none of this portends much humor.

At least it doesn’t based on the first episode. Maybe the premiere is unrepresentative of the rest of the series. Maybe subsequent episodes are inventive and hilarious.

And maybe Ronald Reagan is Karl Marx.

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