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 Station).

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