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'You Get a Car': Oprah studio guests had to pay gift tax up to $7,000 on receiving free vehicle

How the iconic television moment ended on a less than savoury note

Clarisse Loughrey
Tuesday 13 February 2018 10:19
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Oprah Winfrey's famous 'You get a car' clip

One of Oprah's best-known moments had less than a fairytale ending.

A new three-part podcast titled Making Oprah: The Inside Story of a TV revolution has detailed the story behind The Oprah Winfrey Show's iconic "You get a car!" moment in 2004, in which every person in the audience was given a new car donated by General Motors, worth about $8 million in total.

However, the podcast, hosted by journalist Jenn White, reveals that the entire experience turned out quite emotional for the makers of the show. The concept was first conceived by Winfrey's best friend, Gayle King, who had a chance meeting with an executive from GM's Pontiac brand which ended in an offer of 25 cars for a giveaway.

However, producers kept pushing the matter until the manufacturer finally agreed to gift a new G6 to every member of the studio audience.

Winfrey remained dubious about the giveaway, wanting to ensure the cars were given to those who really needed it, as "that would give it a depth and an intention". And so, producers set out to target audience members with questions like, "how do you get to work?" and "how old is your car?".

The episode itself, the 19th season premiere, hiked up the anticipation by calling to the stage 11 teachers, to offer them their "wildest dream" of a new car; Winfrey then announced that a 12th car would be given away, with the key hidden in one of the boxes each audience member was handed. The trick was, there was a key in every box.

"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,” Winfrey says of her "You get car!" moment, now grown into an enduring part of pop culture.

However, what occurred after the cameras stopped rolling adds a rather unfortunate epilogue to the story. As producer Lisa Erspamer explained, "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."

As the podcast's presenter notes: "You can understand why some of the audience might be annoyed with getting a bill of up to $US7,000 ($8,900) depending on your tax bracket... but you can also understand the producers looking at that and going, ‘We just gave you a car?'"

“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,” Erspamer concluded. "You know, we’re people and it made us really sad.”

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