Oprah’s Move a Tectonic Shift for Daytime TV

When Winfrey moves, the TV landscape shakes — so what happens now?

Last Updated: November 22, 2009 @ 3:35 PM

If this were just about a talk show host and her viewers, there’d be little more to say about the news beyond “So long, ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ … roll highlight reel.”

But it’s never been just about Oprah and her viewers.

It’s about the TV affiliates who absolutely count on her ratings for ad sales and local newscast lead-in. It’s about the unending parade of “made” authors (and their publishers) who otherwise don’t stand a chance of selling books. It’s about Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and whoever was going to be the next phenomenally successful spinoff franchise (Nate Berkus, you’ll get right to work, if you have any sense).

It’s about the radioactive celebs, disgraced religious leaders and other public pariahs who will always need a friendly place for image reconstruction. And lately, it’s even been about national politics.

For each of these, let’s just clear up one thing right away: There is no replacement for Oprah Winfrey.

Yes, ratings for “The Oprah Winfrey Show” have been in alarming decline of late. But in reality, the show has been sliding on the same steeply tilted plane to which all of broadcast television now clings. Oprah’s still the queen.

There’s no comparison when it comes to daytime ratings; not “Ellen,” not “Dr. Phil” — and certainly not anything on the horizon — can touch her audience, or her influence. Oprah’s departure is nothing short of a tectonic shift, and chances are when she finally leaves the landscape in September 2011, no one will feel the shaking more violently than local TV stations.

In a nod to that 25-year symbiosis, Harpo, Inc., president Tim Bennett broke the news by e-mailing a statement to the dozens of local affiliates that carry “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” creating a brief moment of panic in the national media as the day’s biggest story bubbled up through the likes of WIBV in Buffalo, New York, WFIE in Evansville, Indiana, and KWCH in Wichita, Kansas.

Whether broadcast television’s loss is basic cable’s gain remains very much to be seen. Presumably, Winfrey will take a more hands-on role at the Oprah Winfrey Network, which will replace the Discovery Health Network in 70 million homes but has been beset by problems and is yet to firm up a launch date.

Even if Winfrey reanimates her talk show in some form on OWN, its potential viewers won’t measure up to what she’s reaching now. And there’s no indication that she will — at least not yet. Pressed on the question, Harpo spokesman said plainly: “Oprah will be ending her talk show.”

There are those who will believe it when they see it.

Winfrey has threatened retirement from the broadcast television business in the run-up to prior contract re-negotiations — she’s not beyond a good bluff. But the dynamics of prospective contract talks are much different this time around: For one, Winfrey has someplace to go; for another, the local stations that pour money into her empire are in a financial situation so dire that her departure could actually come as a relief.

(Closed-circuit to local programming directors who do not carry “The Oprah Winfrey Show”: Your jobs just got harder, too — now there’s no excuse for bum ratings in that time slot).

Broadcast industry pundits chuckled several weeks ago when it was suggested that Discovery president and CEO David Zaslav gave Winfrey an ultimatum to either concentrate her resources full-time on OWN or risk losing the channel. (There was equal disbelief regarding the notion that Winfrey would seek to sustain her media empire within the realm of niche cable, with an analyst adding, “I’ve got two words for you: ‘Howard Stern.’”)

In either case, the message still might have been, "Get out while the getting’s good."

The show is coming off its worst summer on record, audience-wise, and averaging a 5.4 metered-market rating, according to Nielsen. That number is half of what it was a decade ago. Meanwhile, affiliates are getting fewer “Oprah” episodes than ever — Winfrey’s current contract requires her to produce only 26 weeks of original episodes next season — normal daytime shows do about 39 weeks of originals.

Local stations are not in a position to give a declining asset a raise.

“Stations are undergoing such severe economic hardships, it’s probably impossible for her to exceed her current license fees, or even keep them at the same level,” Chuck Larsen, a longtime syndication sales executive, told TheWrap.

Indeed, facing declining returns for the first time in broadcast syndication, it is not unreasonable to imagine that Winfrey would marshal her resources within the media region to which much of her audience has dispersed: cable. And certainly, OWN has given no indication that it will flourish out of the gate with only part-time attention from its namesake. The network’s launch date has been pushed back interminably — it now stands at sometime in 2011 — and there’s been no public indication of tone or identity in terms of programming.

With Winfrey’s imminent "official" Friday announcement given that kind of context, the next logical question wouldn’t seem to be "Is she negotiating?" — but rather, "What happens now?"