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Afternoons without Oprah

Who will fill the void, and who will watch, when the queen of daytime TV departs for cable in 2011?

November 21, 2009|By Joe Flint and Meg James
  • Oprah Winfrey breaks the news to her audience that she'll end her show in September 2011.
Oprah Winfrey breaks the news to her audience that she'll end her show… (Harpo Productions )

Oprah Winfrey told her audience Friday that she had made up her mind to end her hit daytime talk show in September 2011 "after much prayer and months of careful thought."

Now much of the television industry is going to do a lot of praying and thinking as well to figure out how to prepare for life after Oprah.

Winfrey must figure out her second act, too, as she turns her focus to OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, the cable channel she plans to launch in 14 months in partnership with Discovery Communications. Winfrey is expected to have a visible presence on the channel, which will probably include a regular Winfrey-hosted program, although neither she nor Discovery is providing details yet.

Winfrey's decision to make her 25th year on broadcast television her last is the latest seismic shift in daytime TV. Once an expanse of soap operas and genteel talk shows, it has increasingly become the territory of the tawdry and tasteless, occupied by the likes of Jerry Springer and Maury Povich -- although pockets of politeness remain with hosts such as Ellen DeGeneres and Winfrey.

From a financial standpoint, the two with the most to lose, apart from Winfrey herself, are CBS Corp. and Walt Disney Co.

During its nearly 10 years distributing Winfrey's show to local stations, CBS has raked in hundreds of millions in profits. CBS also has benefited from Winfrey's farm system, since it also distributes the "Dr. Phil" and "Rachael Ray" programs, from Winfrey's Harpo Productions, although Winfrey has steered her latest discoveries -- "Dr. Oz" and a potential new show featuring interior designer Nate Berkus -- to Sony.

For its part, CBS on Thursday moved quickly to downplay concerns on Wall Street that Winfrey's exit would take a big gouge out of its bottom line, and analysts tended to agree.

"Most of the value of Oprah has gone to the talk show host herself rather than to her distributors," said Marci Ryvicker, an analyst at Wells Fargo Securities.

JP Morgan estimated that Winfrey's show currently pumps less than $50 million in revenue annually into CBS.

Meanwhile, many of Disney's ABC television stations have long relied on Winfrey's huge audience to boost ratings -- and advertising -- for the local newscasts that follow it.

ABC will have a big gap to fill. There is already speculation among industry insiders that the network may move its morning talk show "The View" to the late-afternoon time period that Winfrey will abandon.

Although stations have more than a year to come up with Plan B, replacing Winfrey will not be easy. It may even be, in large measure, a futile quest.

"I'm not so sure there will be another Oprah," said David Scardino, an analyst at Santa Monica advertising firm RPA. "Never say never, but the audience has become so fragmented that it will be difficult."

This fall Winfrey has been averaging almost 7 million viewers an episode. Her closest rival is "Judge Judy," which gets about 6 million. "Dr. Phil" averages 3.7 million, and newcomer "Dr. Oz" is off to a strong start, averaging almost 3.5 million.

One part of the media firmament sure to miss Oprah are the movie stars, authors and other celebrities who routinely took to her couch to promote their projects.

"The show has been a reliable place to catch women [ages] 25 to 54 who are the consumers of entertainment," said Tom Weeks, senior vice president at Chicago advertising giant Starcom. "She was interwoven with Hollywood in so many ways, amplifying their messages. Where are people going to go to shill their stuff?"

Perhaps to DeGeneres, the comic and former sitcom star whose daytime show is distributed by Warner Bros.

"She makes people feel comfortable, and she's funny and a good conversationalist," Scardino said. "She has a good shot at attracting some of the audience."

Although DeGeneres' audience is less than half that of Winfrey's, her show is most similar in theme and tone to the reigning queen of talk with its mix of celebrities, newsmakers and affirmative messages. DeGeneres' show also could get a lift when she becomes a judge next year on Fox's "American Idol."

"Ellen and Oprah are relentlessly positive, and the opposite end of the spectrum is filled with massive levels of depravity," said social psychologist Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Winfrey's decision should provide a much-needed kick start for OWN, the Los Angeles-based cable channel that was supposed to have launched by now. After nearly two years of misfires and management turmoil, the network should be able to finally design a programming strategy that showcases Winfrey and her sensibilities when it launches in January 2011.

OWN is scheduled to replace the Discovery Health Channel, and Discovery is planning to use the arrival of Winfrey on cable as leverage to demand higher carriage fees from cable and satellite operators.

Consulting firm SNL Kagan says Discovery currently gets about 13 cents for each subscriber for the channel. People familiar with Discovery's strategy said it would try to hike the fee to as much as 50 cents per subscriber for OWN -- a significant price tag that would match that of some of the most popular channels, such as USA and TBS.

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