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Oprah to end her show in 2011

She's expected to deliver a new program to a cable outlet she's starting. Her exit is a blow to two networks.

November 20, 2009|By Scott Collins and Joe Flint
  • Oprah Winfrey's top-rated syndicated talk show has turned little-known products and people into successes.
Oprah Winfrey's top-rated syndicated talk show has turned little-known… (Michael Loccisano / Getty…)

In another blow to the struggling business of network television, Oprah Winfrey is expected to announce on her program today that she will step down from her syndicated afternoon talk show, which over the last two decades has transformed her into one of the richest and most influential forces in popular culture.

Although she has kept mum about her plans, Winfrey, 55, is expected to furnish a new show to OWN: the Oprah Winfrey Network, the long-delayed cable outlet she is starting in partnership with Discovery Communications. The network is scheduled to roll out in 2011 in about 75 million U.S. homes.

The media personality and mogul -- whose show has served as the main pedestal from which she has engaged newsmakers high and low, transformed obscure products and personalities into runaway successes, and preached a gospel of self-empowerment to her devoted, largely female audience -- is betting that, in a world of ever-fragmenting audiences, the future lies with creating her own branded network. She was recently ranked No. 234 on a Forbes list of the world's richest people, with an estimated net worth of $2.7 billion.

Although Winfrey could not be reached for comment, Tim Bennett, the president of Winfrey's Chicago-based production company, Harpo Inc., confirmed in an e-mail Thursday to station partners that she would end the existing program Sept. 9, 2011.

"Oprah's personal comments about this on tomorrow's live show will mark an historic television moment that we will all be talking about for years to come," Bennett wrote.

Financial pain

Meanwhile, CBS and Walt Disney Co.'s ABC are expected to bear the brunt of the financial pain ushered in by Winfrey's departure. CBS, which acquired Winfrey's original syndicator, King World, for $2.5 billion 10 years ago, has taken in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue over the years from "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

ABC carries the show on many of its stations, including its owned-and-operated outlets KABC-TV in Los Angeles and WABC-TV in New York. The show, which has aired in late afternoon on most stations across the country, can be counted on to deliver big audiences for the local newscasts that usually followed it.

"She uniquely remains appointment television," Bill Carroll, vice president at New York-based Katz Television Group, which advises local stations on programming and other issues, said earlier this week when the Winfrey development was rumored but not confirmed. "When she came on and established herself, it was a sea change in the industry, and when she leaves it will be a sea change."

Winfrey, however, now confronts a broadcast medium that is scarcely recognizable compared with the one that greeted her Sept. 8, 1986, when she took her local Chicago talk show into national syndication. Broadcast ratings have plummeted in recent years as viewers have fled to cable and online programming.

Although "Oprah Winfrey" is still the top-rated syndicated talk show, its ratings have not been immune from the erosion. Station managers are finding themselves hard-pressed to continue making rich programming deals, even for "Oprah."

Industry scuttlebutt had it that her rich license fees were going to drop as much as 50% in her next renewal deal. Some observers have pointed out -- although not publicly, for fear of alienating someone who retains unrivaled power in the entertainment sphere -- that Winfrey had little choice but to give up the syndicated show and bend her empire to new realities.

On the other hand, few expect her to go the way of Howard Stern, another once-potent broadcaster who gave up a huge platform for a new role -- in Stern's case, transferring his show from terrestrial to satellite radio -- and wound up with a greatly diminished profile.

"She's not going to die the death of a thousand paper cuts," said one broadcast executive. "She's too smart for that."

Indeed, Winfrey's power to shape culture is undimmed, as evidenced by her recent record. She began this week with a headline-grabbing interview with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who was promoting her bestselling memoir, "Going Rogue." A movie she helped produce, "Precious," the story of a young black woman in Harlem who overcomes a legacy of obesity and abuse, is an early favorite for Oscar consideration.

Raised on a pig farm

By her own account, Winfrey was herself the victim of abuse, growing up impoverished on a pig farm in Mississippi, and has struggled with weight issues her entire life. That story has served as a lasting wellspring for her cultural appeal.

And long after she leaves broadcast TV, Winfrey's fingerprints will remain on the medium, with her disciples (and former regular guests) Phil McGraw and Dr. Mehmet Oz hosting their own hit shows thanks to her support, and another follower, interior designer Nate Berkus, preparing his own syndicated show for national rollout next year.

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