CHICAGO, IL–With nearly three weeks having passed since talk-show host Oprah Winfrey last issued an official command, approximately 60 million Oprah Winfrey Show viewers are on standby, stationed in front of their television sets and patiently awaiting further instructions from their leader.

Hagerstown, MD, <I>Oprah Winfrey Show </I>viewer and mother of four Liz Kuharski, 34, awaits word from her leader about what to buy, cook and read.

"We must be patient with Oprah," said Winfrey fan Melanie Leupke, 44, of Stillwater, OK. "Ours is not to question why she is taking so long. When the time is right and we are needed again, Oprah will tell us what to do."

Across the U.S., Oprah viewers' anticipation for new Winfrey directives is reaching a fever pitch. In Winfrey's home base of Chicago, throngs of fans gather outside her Harpo Studios headquarters around the clock, maintaining their silent, faithful vigil. Though the city's streets are quiet, a palpable sense of expectation fills the air.

"What book should I read? What low-fat lemon-bread recipes should I use? What made-for-TV movies should I watch to give me a sense of empowerment?" asked Pamela Kolb, a Mundelein, IL, homemaker and one of the approximately 13,000 Oprah viewers huddled outside her studio. "In these complex times, it can be frightening to have to go three weeks without any guidance from a television personality. But we must remain true to Oprah's vision. Our duty is to stay focused and on full alert until new orders are issued."

"Oprah will not let us down. I know this much is true," said fan Jamiqua Hudson, clutching a copy of the Wally Lamb best-seller I Know This Much Is True, the latest Oprah's Book Club selection and the last item Oprah fans were commanded to buy before the three-week directive drought began. "She will not leave us to make decisions for ourselves. I have faith in her."

Winfrey, 44, ranks among the most successful individuals in entertainment history, with best-selling cookbooks, high-profile movie roles, close friendships with many of Hollywood's biggest power players, and a top-rated daytime talk show. Time magazine recently named her one of the Most Influential People Of The Century. Her greatest influence, however, is that which she holds over her army of nearly 60 million couch-bound women, who unfailingly obey her nationally televised directives on everything from home-decorating to weight-loss.

"I follow Oprah's advice to the letter," said viewer Cassandra Fryer of Visalia, CA. "When she told us to help out at our kids' schools by repainting any worn-out jungle-gym equipment, I was there right away with my paint can at the ready. In fact, so many women showed up to paint the jungle gym that the resultant multi-layered sludge, made up of thousands of coats of paint, took over seven months to dry."

"I used to wear a lot of teal, but after seeing a recent episode called 'Oprah's Wardrobe Makeovers,' the only colors I wear are muted autumn hues, such as forest green and burgundy," said Liz Kuharski, a Hagerstown, MD, homemaker and mother of four. "I just wish she would issue some more commands for us to obey. If I have to wait much longer, I might find myself inadvertently following the orders of some other talk-show host."

During the past few years, Winfrey's power seems to have grown exponentially. All 18 Oprah's Book Club selections have been New York Times best-sellers. When, through the auspices of her charity organization, Oprah's Angel Network, she ordered her followers to contribute pocket change to the World's Largest Piggy Bank for scholarships for needy children, they did so in record numbers. Her May 1998 command to her followers to stop eating ham sandwiches singlehandedly bankrupted the U.S. pork industry.

Spokespersons for Harpo Productions said Winfrey well understands the responsibility that comes with such extraordinary power.

"Oprah takes her role as a world leader very seriously," Harpo Productions director of public relations Amy Hirsch said in a press release issued from deep within the company's massive network of underground bunkers. "Her commitment to the betterment of her subjects is supreme, and she will allow nothing and no one to stand in the way of such efforts."

"Sometimes, I don't know what to do," said Jane Clement, a Cedar Rapids, IA, manicurist. "But, then, Oprah comes on the TV and explains to me what I should be doing, and I feel better."

Clement's sentiments are typical of millions of Oprah viewers, who have total faith in their leader. But despite such faith, some experts fear that if the wait for a new edict goes on much longer, serious trouble may arise.

"The U.S. daytime-TV audience is a powderkeg waiting to go off," said Prof. Katherine Anne Beatts, director of Harvard University's prestigious Institute For Media Studies. "If this mob continues to be left without direction, it is in danger of fragmenting into thousands of uncontrollable splinter groups, acting without cohesion and creating a state of virtual anarchy. Oprah must avert this crisis scenario by acting now, before it is too late."

Added Beatts: "The paucity of leadership in this country should be deeply appalling to any civilized person."