Oprah-calypse Now

To avoid “The Horror, The Horror,” stations planning for life after the syndication behemoth signs off can’t start too soon.

The Oprah Winfrey Show won’t depart broadcast
TV, including San Antonio’s KSAT, for another year, but
market rival KENS has already brainstormed—and executed—
its post-Oprah counterprogramming strategy.
The Belo station launched a 4 p.m. news in August, knowing full
well that sampling would run high with KSAT airing repeats of
the big O. “With Oprah going away next year, we determined it
was the perfect opportunity to put a new program on,” says KENS
Executive News Director Kurt Davis. “Since she’s in reruns, hopefully
people will see our show, stick around and come back.”

KENS is hardly alone in its necessary long-range thinking. The talk titan’s departure to her OWN cable channel after
a stunning quarter-century in syndication affects
not only the 200-plus stations airing her show, but the
thousand or so that compete against it. Typically anchoring
the 4 p.m. lead-in to local news, Oprah has
served as a linchpin in stations’ scheduling strategy.
While local TV executives are generally pleased with
newer talk shows such as Ellen and The Dr. Oz Show,
all agree that there will never be another Oprah. And
therein lies opportunity.

“Frankly, we’ll never see a show like that again—a
true big stage show,” says Hearst Television VP of Programming
Emerson Coleman. “For us, it was the quintessential
news lead-in.”

A banged-up halo
To be sure, Oprah Winfrey’s best days as a daytime lineup’s
cleanup hitter are behind her. Escalating license
fees amidst shrinking ratings continue to rankle many a
general manager, and the extent of the ratings downturn
is sobering. Oprah has lost 39% of its household viewership
in the last five years, going from a 7.2 national
rating in 2004-2005 to a 4.4 rating this season to date.
It’s worse in the key female demos, with a 46% drop in
women 25-54 over that same period, and a 51% decrease
in women 18-49.

Yet, the stations’ fees have climbed. Syndication insiders
say the show costs stations around $275,000 per
week in New York and $250,000 in Los Angeles, while
a mid-market station may pay around $150,000 per
week for its daily dose of Oprah.

While many anticipate a strong nostalgia-driven final year—the 2010-2011 season had a splashy premiere,
with audience members given trips to Australia—Oprah
has been a loss leader for many stations for years. “It’s
a lot of money for stations to pay when the show is not
delivering in ratings,” says KHOU Houston President/General Manager Susan McEldoon. “When it stops doing
big numbers, it’s a big check to write.”

What comes after ‘O’?
The million-dollar question now is how Oprah stations
will fill that void,
and most station
execs are guarding
the answer like a
confidential Cold
War document.
Oprah-airing stations
are at something
of a disadvantage
for next year, as
the competition may
already have traction
with a 4 p.m. news
or with the strongest
afternoon syndicated
programs, such as Ellen
and Dr. Oz.

Among the station
groups with sizable
Oprah contingents are
Hearst and Gray Television,
both with 18 Oprah stations. Hearst insiders say the replacements
will be a mix of syndicated programming (Ellen, Dr. Oz),
with what looks like a smaller number of rookie newscasts
filling the void. The Gray stations, too, will offer
both syndicated and homegrown fare, perhaps leaning
toward the latter. “We try to add local news any chance
we get,” says Gray President/COO Robert Prather.

Raycom, with 16 Oprah stations, will aim to fill some
of the void with its own America Now (see Station to

Many industry folks, meanwhile,
will be eyeing ABCowned
stations: Seven such
outlets currently air Oprah,
mostly in giant markets,
including WLS Chicago,
where Winfrey’s TV career
was hatched. ABC is typically
tight-lipped about its
plans, though it has announced
that KABC Los
Angeles will run Dr. Oz,
and WLS President/General
Manager Emily Barr
has mentioned a live, local
show in Winfrey’s
stead with the working
title Morning Rush. (Unlike
virtually all Oprah
stations, WLS airs Oprah
at 9 a.m.)

ABC will not tip its hand on the other five stations, though insiders suggest
the bulk will opt for homespun programs. (Some
wonder if KGO San Francisco will produce a replacement
from its new user-generated content partnership
with YouTube, called uReport). “The group is simply not
discussing it,” says an ABC spokesperson.

What about the other few hundred stations airing
Oprah across America? Like the stations themselves,
the answers are all over the map. “We’ve got a ton of
research dedicated to that question, and that question
alone,” says Frank N. Magid Senior VP Bill Hague.
“What’s it look like? What’s the opportunity? Every
market is different.”

Station management is perusing viewer research and
crunching the budget numbers, and gathering daily
information on the performance of various syndicated
shows as stations contemplate their Oprah replacements.
“We’ve done a lot of research, as have a lot of companies,
on whether an additional 4 p.m. newscast is the
right way to go,” says Meredith Local Media President
Paul Karpowicz. “It’s a market-by-market decision. How
much local news is being programmed in that market?
Do you have competition already in that 4 p.m. space?
Nothing says you couldn’t do just as well with another
syndicated show.”

Early indications are that perhaps half the stations
will launch a local newscast. The cost of adding one
is minimal, and the station gets to keep the ad inventory—
a perk that does not exist with a syndicated show.
With a blockbuster presidential election in the offing for
2012, many stations are keen to add the news inventory
where candidates prefer to place their campaign spots.

“Most stations we’ve spoken to are
probably going to do a local show,”
says Mark Toney, senior VP of media
research and consulting firm SmithGeiger.
“It’s still true that the best lead-in to
news is another newscast.”

As stations increasingly focus on offering
viewers content that no one else
can provide, local news makes the most
sense for many. While he insists that a
final decision has not been made about
what to put on at 4 next fall, KING Seattle
President/General Manager Ray
Heacox speaks for many GMs when he
says the Belo station is defined by local
programs such as Evening Magazine, not
Dr. Phil. “Whenever it makes economic
sense, our default is local,” he says. “It’s
part of what defines us.”

Exceptions to the rules

Yet, station chiefs frequently mention
the importance of going with a proven
quantity in that vital 4 p.m. slot, and
for many that means a battle-tested
syndicated show—particularly if, as
Karpowicz notes, another station in the
market is already airing a 4 p.m. news.
WCPO Cincinnati, for one, is shifting
Ellen from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. “We did a
lot of research and had a lot of discussions
with syndicators,” says VP/General
Manager Bill Fee. “We decided it
was better to [put in] a known quantity
than an unknown quantity.”

But with Ellen, a natural Oprah foil,
already spoken for in numerous markets,
Dr. Oz seems to be the replacement
of choice among syndicated programs.
WNYT Albany, among others, is shifting the healththemed
show to 4 p.m. next fall. “We like the way Dr.
Oz is set up and we like that it’s interactive,” says WNYT
VP/General Manager Steve Baboulis. “We think he’s a
growing entity and a natural choice to go to 4 p.m.”

Petry Television VP of Research Alan Picozzi suspects
that most risk-averse station bosses will see syndication
as a safer route. “I get the sense that in this time period,
broadcasters will be conservative,” he says. “You have to
protect the 5 p.m. franchise, which is news. I think stations
will go with a safe play to get reasonable ratings.”

While they may be engaging in negotiating gamesmanship,
many station executives express
disappointment with the current crop of syndicated
shows. “I expected to have better choices,” said one boss
at a top 10-market station. “They knew a long time ago
that Oprah was leaving and stations would have money
available, and nobody came up with anything.”

Audience in play

Despite Oprah’s declining audience, competing stations
are salivating at the prospect of grabbing large chunks
of viewers who will be orphaned after Winfrey exits
local TV. WSB Atlanta isn’t discussing its post-Oprah
plans, but its rivals are anticipating some audience in
play. “I don’t know that WSB will do Oprah numbers
at 4 [after she leaves],” says WGCL Senior VP/General
Manager Kirk Black, who debuted a 4 p.m. news a few
years ago. “Once she goes away, it’s a jump ball. I think
that spells opportunity for us.”

All broadcasters seem to agree that the end of The
Oprah Winfrey Show
is the finale of a golden era. One
executive at a major group says Oprah possesses the
attributes of the other syndicated hosts combined—the
charisma of Ellen and the informational takeaway of Dr.
Oz. “You could build a team around her,” he says. “She
was automatic—the other shows are not.”

But all good things come to an end, and endings often
mark new beginnings—for Winfrey and her station
partners alike. “It’s time for Oprah to do something different,”
says WNYT’s Baboulis. “It’s time for us to go in
a different direction, too.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @StationBiz