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The 'Oprah' Effect

While Ellen and Oz are early winners, Winfrey’s departure creates opportunity 1/03/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern

For syndicators and stations,
2011 will forever be The Year That
Oprah Left.

But Oprah’s not the only one saying farewell
this year. The iconic Mary Hart, who has hosted
Entertainment Tonight since 1982, also will take
her final bow, handing off syndication’s top
magazine to former rival Access Hollywood anchor
Nancy O’Dell.

NancyODell_MaryHart.jpgWhen Oprah goes off the air in September,
with a series finale scheduled for May, stations
will be bereft of the most successful talk show of
all time. That will affect stations in two opposing
ways: They will be freed from paying daytime’s
most expensive license fees, but they will
also lose daytime’s highest-rated show.

When Winfrey announced in November
2009 that her show was coming to an end, the
initial reaction was that a giant opportunity was
presenting itself for new daytime fare. That has
turned out to be less than true: For the most
part, existing syndicated shows—particularly
Warner Bros.’ Ellen and Sony’s Dr. Oz—will
slide into the Oprah time slots.

But some stations—notably, Oprah flagship
WLS Chicago—will fill Winfrey’s slot with local
original programming or extend their local
afternoon newscasts. The only new show to
benefit from Oprah’s departure is Warner Bros.’
Anderson, hosted by CNN’s Anderson Cooper,
which thus far has won the Winfrey time period
in three markets.

“Stations feel it’s important to invest in their
overall schedules, but right now the difficulty is the environment,”
says Bill Carroll, VP of programming for Katz Television Programming
Group. “What you can get for commercial time in daytime is
not commensurate for what the cost of daytime programming would
be. That’s difficult to justify. We’re never again going to see license
fees like Oprah got. The real question is: What’s a reasonable price to
pay for what you can expect to get in return?”

That gap between what it costs to produce a successful daytime
talk show and what stations are able to earn in those time periods is
why launching a first-run program has become ever more challenging.
Meanwhile, top-notch off-network sitcoms and other off-net fare are setting sales records.

“The shows that are generating record
license fees in off-net are proven
commodities,” says the head of one major
syndication company. “There’s no
denying the success of Big Bang Theory,
Two and a Half Men and now ModernFamily. Right now, there’s nothing else
out there at that level.”

The key then is finding a first-run
show that’s as proven a hit as these
off-net programs. Oprah’s departure
makes that job harder: Besides Ellen,
every successful daytime launch since
Dr. Phil in 2002 has been an Oprah
spinoff. That’s why some syndicators
are excited at the prospect of having
a show to sell starring Katie Couric, a
known daytime talent who is said to
be considering her options as her CBS
News contract nears its end.

“Katie is a pretty incredible opportunity
for anybody,” says one syndicator.

Meanwhile, a few shows continue
to battle for first-run berths. CBS
Television Distribution is shopping
Jay McGraw’s The Lawyers as well as
Renegade’s late-fringe dating show, Excused.
Sony has shot a pilot with Dr.
Oz’ wife, Lisa.

Other options for 2011 have failed to
get off the ground: Debmar-Mercury’s
Fran Drescher, which aired in a threeweek
test between Thanksgiving and
Christmas, is a no-go.

With stations having made their
Oprah decisions, business is nearly
closed for 2011, shifting all eyes to
2012. That year already looks promising,
with a presidential election and
Summer Olympics on the slate. And
by then, stations may decide that their
Oprah replacements aren’t working out
as well as they had hoped, which could
open up some opportunities.

Finally, unsettled business at two of the country’s top station
groups—NBC Universal and Tribune—is expected to become settled
in 2012. Both groups make programming decisions in top markets,
and their moves trickle down to stations in the rest of the country.

Comcast’s merger with NBC should close early in 2011, and distributors
hope that transition will cause NBC to get more aggressive
about acquiring syndicated fare. And Tribune should finally settle its
dispute with creditors and emerge from bankruptcy.

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