NATPE: Oprah’s Heir and Nancy Grace’s Flair

Finding a new hit first-run strip in syndication is no easy feat, particularly when the better time periods are populated with established programming. But with Oprah Winfrey’s upcoming departure from daytime TV now a reality, the major distributors are jockeying to fill that key hour of early-fringe real estate.

Easily the biggest news this season is Oprah’s announcement that she will officially step down from her syndicated chatfest after what will be 25 years on Sept. 9, 2011 to concentrate on her upcoming cable network OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, a joint venture with Discovery Communications. While the “Queen” of daytime’s actual involvement at OWN remains uncertain (Oprah claims she will not do another talker), much clearer is the opportunity created now for all other syndicators. It also was the right time for her to step away.

“Ratings have declined over the years, and the upcoming license fees were likely going to decrease, so the timing makes sense,” explains Brad Adgate, svp of research at Horizon Media. “But Oprah is still in a league of her own, and the pending departure could negatively impact the lead-out local news, which leads into network news and prime time. There is a definite domino effect here.”

“No one should be too surprised,” adds Sharianne Brill, svp, director of Strategic Audience Analysis, at Carat. “When OWN was announced, talk of Oprah’s exit from syndication was spreading like wildfire. It was just a question of when she would leave.”

So who will benefit from her looming absence? Before that’s addressed, let’s look at what else has happened in this 2009-10 TV syndication season. The biggest success is the debut of Sony Pictures Television’s The Dr. Oz Show, the highest-rated new syndicated talker since Dr. Phil seven years earlier. Through Jan. 8, Dr. Oz is averaging a 2.6 rating in households, just two-tenths of a rating point behind deteriorating Dr. Phil, according to Nielsen Media Research data. Both Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil (along with perky Rachael Ray) are spawns of, you guessed it, Oprah, who has yet another spinoff up her sleeve: interior designer Nate Berkus. His show, which is being distributed by Sony, is also expected to benefit from the exposure on Oprah (but has no confirmed clearances at press time, a common trend for most new entrants).

Dr. Oz is most likely to inherit a good percentage of the available time periods given its early buzz and ongoing momentum (which will only grow more in Oprah’s plum spots). Competing distributors will, of course, be actively pitching their product for next fall, particularly The Ellen DeGeneres Show from Warner Bros., who Oprah herself seems to endorse. And some stations are expected to expand their local news up one hour. Katie Couric also is said to be considering a new talk show since her contract as anchor of the CBS Evening News expires in May 2011. Further, there are rumors ABC’s The View may be moving to later in the day.
Even former daytime powerhouse Rosie O’Donnell’s name has come up (she’s currently hosting a daily radio show on Sirius).

O’Donnell doesn’t rule out the possibility. “There’s been a lot of talk lately with Ms. Winfrey going to do her own channel,” she said at the Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour. “I can’t imagine going back, but stranger things have happened.”

“As great a loss as Oprah’s exit will be, it does open doors,” adds Brill. “And that creates excitement. It is not that often that a prime hour of early fringe real estate opens.”

Oprah’s avails aside, several other first-run options are vying for clearances, alongside more new off-network product than ever before. But only two or three of the proposed new first-run strips are expected to actually make it to air.