Oprah moves, TV landscape shakes

Her departure from daytime is nothing short of a tectonic shift, especially for local TV stations. What happens now?

By John Davenport Nov 20, 2009 1:26AM

By Josh Dickey and Daniel Frankel, TheWrap


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.


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 steep tilt to which all of broadcast television now clings; Oprah's still the queen.


There’s still no comparison when it comes to daytime ratings -- not “Ellen,” not “Dr. Phil,” and certainly not anything on the horizon, can touch her audience. 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, N.Y., WFIE in Evansville, Ind., and KWCH in Wichita, Kan.


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 re-animates 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, a 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 renegotiations -- 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 with OWN; for another, the local stations that pour money into her empire are in a financial situation so dire that her departure could actually be 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.


Read more on TheWrap:


'Wipeout': Another reality-show death


A crack in Oprah's new TV network


6(66) reasons 'Twilight' is doomed


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