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Filling the Oprah Void

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Oprah Winfrey’s exit in May might not be the end-of-days scenario for the syndication upfront many predicted when she announced last year that her daytime juggernaught was ending.

The strength of the overall TV market suggests that this year’s syndie upfront could be just as strong (if not stronger) than last year’s, Oprah or no Oprah. Scatter pricing at top syndicated programs is up between 25-30 percent from the rates established during the upfront, and clients in resurgent categories (packaged goods, retail) are expected to flood the zone in order to avoid having to pay such inflated rates next season.

And beyond the marketplace roaring back to life, there is the economics of Oprah herself.

“What most people don’t realize is about 80 or 90 percent of the revenue from Oprah’s show goes into her pocket,” said one top media buyer. “So the impact on CBS [Television Distribution] and the overall syndication marketplace will not be as catastrophic as many think. Plus, Oprah’s ratings are not as strong as they once were.”

Certainly her exit will leave a significant hole to fill in daytime.

“It defies conventional wisdom that the syndication landscape will not be hurt by Oprah’s departure,” said Brad Adgate, head of corporate research at Horizon Media. “I do think Regis [Philbin] leaving could also be detrimental . . . it’s a personality driven show and has been very popular with viewers for decades. But the bigger concern is Oprah because Regis can always decide to extend his tenure, and the hit Disney-ABC franchise is not ending.”

Like most established TV franchises, Oprah is down significantly from its heyday. But the show still stands well above anything else of a talk-driven nature, with a 4.9 rating in households and as high as a 3.1 rating among target women 25-54 through March 20.

That’s on par from one year earlier, with an advantage over No. 2 Dr. Phil, also from CBS, of 75 percent in households and 107 in the target female demo. The going rate for a 30-second spot in the Oprah finale is a cool $1 million, or about 10 times the show’s going rate.

“What it all boils down to is who is stepping into the Oprah time periods and how the audience will respond,” said Bill Carroll, of Katz Media Group. “There’s no reason to believe the available viewers will abandon the time period. They may go elsewhere if there’s no interest in the replacement series, but they are unlikely to just go away. And that needs to be addressed in the upfront negotiations.”

Three shows at present stand to gain the most from Oprah’s upcoming absence—The Ellen DeGeneres Show from Warner Bros., Dr. Oz, from Sony Pictures Television and Warner Bros.’ upcoming Anderson, hosted by Anderson Cooper—as their distributors rack up a number of the available Oprah time periods.  But one look at the current household numbers for Dr. Oz (2.4, season-to-date) and Ellen (2.2) and the current leader in talk will be notably absent next season.

“Of course Oprah is a loss,” said Mitch Burg, head of the Syndicated Network Television Association. “But minus Oprah, the competition will benefit next season, as will any show airing in place of her thanks to the higher-profile time periods.”

Aside from all the hyperventilating over Oprah, the erratic behavior of Charlie Sheen could be another concern. Will viewers watching Two and a Half Men abandon its repeats?

“Scandal sparks curiosity and there hasn’t been a dip in the recent numbers. So it’s onward and potentially upward for Two and a Half Men,” said Adgate. “If anything, troubled Sheen may even increase the ad dollars in syndication.”

Last year, an estimated $2.35 billion in syndication ad sales business was tallied, a lift of 15 percent from the ’09-’10 upfront. Dollar volume grew in proportion to CPM increases—pricing for top-tier shows was up 8-9 percent, while mid- and bottom-tier shows were up between 5-7 percent.

The two larger markets, broadcast and cable, are on target for a record haul. Cable ad sales execs anticipate total upfront commitments will surpass $8.5 billion, while broadcast nets are so optimistic of a major windfall that CBS Corp. CEO Les Moonves has already told investors his team will be pulling down double-digit CPM increases. —with Anthony Crupi