Stations Plot Life After Oprah

GMs question what to do with prime TV real estate

Stations that have benefited handsomely—while paying handsomely—from airing Oprah Winfrey are ramping up the brainstorming on what to do with the vital time slot when the talk titan departs local television in September 2011. Local TV execs’ first reactions are to salute the end of an era that television may never see again.

“It’s been a great run for everyone—she’s been very good for the business,” says Meredith Executive V.P. Doug Lowe, who airs Oprah in Hartford, Nashville and Saginaw, Mich. “Oprah's done something no one else could do, and she’s changed the face of television.”

General managers say today’s announcement from Winfrey gooses ratings for the program, and a limited supply of Oprah should help sustain viewer interest--especially when the retrospective episodes start airing near the finale. “She’s all over the news, and that creates a tune-in factor--people are anxious to see what Oprah herself has to say,” says KCCI Des Moines President/General Manager Paul Fredericksen. “I think more individuals will stay tuned to what she has to say on a daily and weekly basis.”

Now, the million dollar question becomes what to do with that hour. (“A 16th hour of Today?” quips one NBC affiliate manager.) Typically leading into a station’s early evening local news at 4 p.m., the time slot is crucial. Stations may opt to put Ellen or another existing syndicated entity in the slot. GMs say syndicators will do their darndest to create the next home run that they say will fill the void, though that’s always been the mandate for syndicators.

“I’m anxious to see what the brightest and best minds in syndication come up with,” says WSB Atlanta VP/General Manager Bill Hoffman.

Winfrey’s announcement comes at a time when stations are increasingly chafing at the cost of syndicated programs, and opting to use modern news-gathering technology to extend their hyper-local news brand on a limited budget. Some will give long thought to plugging in a new newscast or even a local lifestyle show. Meredith, for one, has created a daytime hit with its Better franchise; Lowe says the group will at least consider putting its own stamp on late afternoons. “We always look at local options first,” he says. “You control your own destiny if you do it yourself.”

WJLA Washington has been ramping up its multiplatform local news operations, and may tap into that when Oprah departs.

"we are going to look at all of our options including using some of our local franchise," Jerald Fritz, senior VP and general counsel for WJLA parent Allbritton Communications, said.

Those include WJLA, local cable net NewsChannel 8, Hill newspaper/Web site Politico and a new "hyper-localized Web site" in the works.

The station should have plenty of video to tap into. Allbritton is combining the WJLA and NewsChannel 8 Web sites that will be primarily video-driven, says Fritz. "We'll have all these hyper-localized stories," which it will use to populate the cable news channel, but could also be tapped into if the station decides to go local in the Oprah time period.

While the planning and plotting is at least underway, general managers say they’re fortunate to be in a position to sit back and see how the wild cards—new syndicated shows, the economic picture—stack up before making a decision. “We’ve got a lot of time to think about what direction we want to go in,” says Fredericksen. “If she was leaving in 2010, it’d be a much different story.”

Managers at partner stations say Harpo handled the announcement well, informing them via email or the phone with the big news before it crept into the mass media bloodstream. Some concede it looks like a savvy move for a television icon with a knack for spotting trends. “She really, truly understands multiplatform media,” says WJAR VP/General Manager Lisa Churchville, who acknowledges that the golden era of daytime talk has passed.

A study from Frank N. Magid’s Millennial Strategy Program shows that Oprah’s key baby boomer audience will become the minority in 2011, as Millennials (people 13-31) surpass 50% of the population. Millennials’ TV tastes may favor reality or news more than a daytime talker, say Magid execs, and programmers will increasingly pay them heed. “It’s not about boomers anymore,” says Magid Senior V.P. Bill Hague. “New viewers are coming in, and we’re trying to help stations build or buy a show that fits their sensibilities.”

While station execs are excited about having some waterfront real estate to build on, they’re also sorry to say good bye to what may be one of the last great broadcast monoliths. “Oprah’s had a phenomenal career across 25 years in broadcasting,” says WINK Ft. Myers VP/General Manager Wayne Simons. “She’s made herself a lot of money, and we’ve all generated a lot of revenue because of her. It’s been a good relationship.”


Oprah-calypse Now

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