In what is shaping up to be the biggest change in first-run syndication in two decades, Oprah Winfrey will announce on her show today that she will end her daily talk program Sept. 9, 2011, after 25 years on the air.
This is anything but a retirement. Winfrey will shift her efforts to OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, which she owns with Discovery Communications. The cable network expects to bow at the end of next year.
"If you think the last quarter century has been something, then 'don't touch that dial' as together we plan to make history in the next 20 months and beyond," Tim Bennett, president of Winfrey's Harpo Productions, wrote Thursday in a letter to employees.
Although the announcement had been anticipated, it is a blow to local TV stations that have counted on The Oprah Winfrey Show for high ratings, usually as a lead-in to local news programs. Ratings for "Oprah" have drifted downward during the past few years and posted an all-time low in June, but the CBS-syndicated talker remains the king of afternoon TV in most markets.
The show has averaged a 5.4 household rating this season, which translates to 7.3 million viewers daily. It also scores a strong 3.0 rating in the key adults 18-49 demographic. That's down 35 percent among women in total households compared with five years ago and off 45 percent in the 25-45 female demo, according to David Scardino, entertainment specialist at ad agency RPA.
Although Oprah isn't the highest-rated syndie show -- a title held by Wheel of Fortune, with 10 million daily viewers -- it's well above anything else in daytime, though it recently finished behind courtroom show Judge Judy.
The announcement will come at the end of a big week for the show, which nabbed its best ratings in two years Monday when Winfrey interviewed Sarah Palin.
With local stations already reeling from reduced ad revenue, how incumbents deal with replacing Oprah -- and how rival stations counter with their own -- will be crucial to their long-term health once the recession ends.
In addition, Winfrey has been the most successful incubator of syndie talent, including Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray and Dr. Oz, so it's unclear who among distributors will step up with new strategies for getting shows launched in her absence.
"There's no doubt that the landscape could shift dramatically," one syndie veteran said.
The very style of talk shows likely will change as the remaining first-run players, and any newcomers, take up the slack. While the time slots will be filled, that doesn't mean anyone else will command the ratings and respect Winfrey has earned, or have the same impact.
"She is unique," Scardino said. "They aren't going to be able to replace her quickly or easily. The thing is, Oprah has been on for so long and has such a presence and aura that there isn't anybody around with that impact."
CBS TV Distribution inherited distribution rights to the show when it acquired King World. in 1999 for $2.5 billion. The end of the show will be a blow to the syndicator, but it's not as bad as if it had owned the show (Harpo owns and produces the program.) CBS also has seven of the other top 10 shows in syndication.
"We have the greatest respect for Oprah and wish her nothing but the best in her future endeavors," CBS TV Distribution said in a statement. "We know that anything she turns her hand to will be a great success. We look forward to working with her for the next several years and hopefully afterwards as well."
Even if Winfrey had stayed on, Scardino said, it is doubtful her program would have netted as much in the next round because local stations have been rocked by the recession and increased competition for advertising from cable TV and the Internet.
The station group most impacted by Winfrey's exit will be ABC, which airs the show in nine of the top 10 U.S. markets. Beyond ABC, the groups that air "Oprah" on the most outlets are Hearst (Boston), Cox (Atlanta), Belo (Dallas) and Gannett (St. Louis).
Winfrey might spin off another syndicated show, but she is expected to focus her immediate efforts on OWN, which in April announced its first batch of shows. Those include "Master Class," which will feature extraordinary people "hand-picked by Oprah."
Winfrey likely will host a daily talk show similar to what she's been doing in syndication, mixing entertainment and lifestyle segments.
A Harpo spokesman indicated Winfrey might do other shows as well. Discovery Communications recently said that Winfrey will narrate an 11-part nonfiction documentary series, "Life," which will premiere in March on the Discovery network.
Nielsen Business Media