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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Oprah Winfrey said on Friday that she will end her popular TV show in 2011 because it "feels right in her bones" after 25 years, and urged viewers not to believe rumors of why she's quitting.
"This show has been my life and I love it enough to know when it's time to say goodbye. Twenty-five years feels right in my bones, and it feels right in my spirit. It's the perfect number, the exact right time," Winfrey said during Friday's show at her Chicago studio.
Winfrey, 55, did not divulge her future plans. But her production company Harpo Inc. said in a statement that once production ends on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in 2011, she "plans to appear and participate in new programing for OWN", the Los Angeles-based cable TV venture she formed with Discovery Communications Inc.
Harpo said the launch date for OWN, or the Oprah Winfrey Network, which will be seen in more than 70 million homes, was now set for January 2011.
During her long career atop the television talk show heap, Winfrey's fluctuating weight and personal relationships have become tabloid fodder, and commentators have wondered whether she was tiring of the grind -- only to see her slim down and revive her show's popularity.
"Over the next couple of days you may hear a lot of speculation in the press about why I am making this decision now, and that will mostly be conjecture," she said.
Winfrey choked up once and wiped away a tear as she thanked viewers for having "graciously invited me into your living rooms, your kitchens and into your lives.
"So here we are, halfway through the season 24. And it still means as much to me to spend an hour every day with you as it did back in 1986," she said.
Oprah delayed the 3-1/2-minute announcement until the end of the show. She began the show saying she would make an announcement at end, then went into a segment about a 5-year-old girl who was murdered and raped.
She then probed for personal details in interviews with Gabby Sidibe, the star of the Winfrey-produced movie "Precious," and comedian Ray Romano, who was promoting his new TV show about middle-aged men.
Her predominantly female audience gave her a standing ovation and then hugs when she stepped into the crowd.
"The Oprah Winfrey Show," broadcast from Chicago on ABC stations across the United States and in more than 140 countries overseas, is one of the TV industry's biggest money-makers. It is the top-rated U.S. daytime talk show, averaging 7.1 million viewers this year.
It has helped Winfrey, born in 1954 to a single mother in rural Mississippi, amass a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at $2.3 billion and anchored an entertainment empire that produces television talk shows, movies, and the style magazine O, the Oprah Magazine.
Winfrey, who also earned an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in the 1985 film "The Color Purple," is considered a major opinion-maker in the United States. Her public backing of presidential candidate Barack Obama last year was considered a boost for the Democrat's campaign.
Her book and product choices have launched best-sellers and marketing bonanzas.
In a telling moment on the show, she noted Romano was at one time the best-paid actor on television and then told him: "I don't make decisions based on money, and neither do you."
Winfrey's disarming style that endeared her to her viewers has encouraged such celebrities as Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise and Whitney Houston to unburden themselves on camera.
She promised more of the same in the coming 18 months, saying she and her staff will be "brainstorming new ways we can entertain you and inform you and uplift you when we return here in January" after a holiday hiatus.
Additional reporting by Jill Serjeant in Los Angeles; Editing by Philip Barbara