CULTURE POP: COVER STORY: OPRAH CAPTURES THE PRIZE IN '96

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She rules the talk show realm, makes more money than any other U.S. entertainer and can propel a little-known book onto the best-seller list overnight.

Now Oprah Winfrey has added another prize to her trove, capturing the most points in the Cover Story survey for 1996 after a couple of years of second-place finishes.

In all, the talk show hostess with the mostest scored 39.5 points with 29 cover appearances, ranging from Ebony and Good Housekeeping to regular appearances on the covers of supermarket tabs Star and National Enquirer.

As for that Juice-y story that bumped Oprah from the top spot for two years running? The O.J. Simpson legal drama crept down to 10th place with just 22 points after scoring a whopping 107 points in 1995 for its second consecutive win.

At TV Guide, which chose Ms. Winfrey as its 1996 Performer of the Year, Editor in Chief Steven Reddicliffe said picking the winner of that honor was "not a hotly debated question; it was an obvious decision."

He cited the incredible impact of Ms. Winfrey's on-the-air book club, which has "gotten a nation buying and reading more books .*. *. it's had an amazing impact, all positive."

Another factor was "the remarkable coups in strings of guests," from the artist formerly known as Prince to Madonna and Barbra Streisand. "It's a testament to her remarkable ability to gauge what people want to watch."

For the coming year, Mr. Reddicliffe thinks magazine covers will be featuring more "Friends" as well as "Seinfeld" cast members, particularly Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Also expect to see more of Jenny McCarthy, George Clooney and Tom Selleck.

Some celebs that Cover Story predicts will be major stars on magazines in 1997 include the top scorers this year, as well as Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife Carolyn Bessette and John Travolta.

Tying for second place in 1996 were the Summer Olympics and Demi Moore, with the athletic drama marred by a bombing in Atlanta scoring the same 36 points as the uninhibited star of the overexposed "Striptease."

Actress and singer Whitney Houston made the No. 4 spot, earning 26 points in the wake of the success of "Waiting to Exhale." Superstar Tom Cruise clocks in at No. 5, winning 24.5 points as his movie career gained new heat with "Mission: Impossible."

The ongoing tabloid fascination with Madonna and Michael Jackson helped propel them into a tie for sixth place, both earning 24 points as the singer/actress became a mother and the King of Pop dissolved his union with Lisa Marie Presley and then married a longtime friend who will bear his child.

The intrigue of an election year helped make politics a hot topic, with President Clinton scoring 23 points for eighth place. Princess Diana may no longer be part of the royal family, but she continues her reign on magazine covers, with 22.5 points for 1996 to capture the No. 9 spot.

And tying with O.J. for No. 10 is perky talk show co-host Kathie Lee Gifford.

In an impressive group performance worth noting, the cast of "Friends" were on magazine covers everywhere to earn 63 points. Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer appeared on 32 covers, either separately or together, as the TV stars added feature film credits to their resumes.M

Cover Story is Ad Age's monthly ranking of celebrities' popularity as reflected by their appearances on the covers of more than 30 of the nation's leading

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