The Price Point | Where Is Oprah When We Need Her?
This is launch week for many of the 2019 syndicated shows. It also marks eight years since Oprah Winfrey exited syndication, leaving a ratings chasm that has yet to be filled. Not that no one has tried. Everyone has tried. Everyone who could cobble together a set, a studio audience and a five-piece band.
Among this year’s prime entrants are Tamron Hall, Kelly Clarkson and RuPaul Andre Charles. I’ve seen the presentations and can certify each will be a mega hit — it said so right in the presentations. Each of these shows has merit, but so did the dozens of previous contenders. The sad fact is that Marianne Williamson has a better shot at getting elected president than a new syndicated show does of becoming a hit. Williamson’s crystal gazing at least brings something new.
There have been some success stories. Ellen and Dr. Phil are steady performers. Steve Harvey was showing real promise until he dropped his syndicator, moved to L.A. and started producing the show he wanted to instead of the one that had been working.
Of course, none of this is actually about syndication. It is about local news ratings and the millions of dollars a demo point can be worth. Oprah was the first show to deliver the bulk of its audience to the local newscast that followed. Overnight, stations went from last place to first. That never happened before, nor has it since.
The late Roger King was a genius at determining the exact dollar amount of revenue Oprah produced on any given station. If Oprah produced $25,000 a week, that was the license fee. Stations gladly paid up because the upside in local news was so much more. Toward the end, some stations were paying more for the show than they could generate in the show. There was even a name for this: negative amortization. Why do such a nutty thing? Out of fear Oprah would move to a competitor.
Roger was also brilliant at disguising the price. $25,000 a week sounds like so much less than $3,900,000 for a three-year deal. He also found other ways to make money, steadily increasing the amount of barter. When stations complained, he just shortened the show. I once asked him why a new contract included a $100 daily “satellite charge.” He had no good answer, finally saying “most people don’t read the contract that far.” What’s a $100 charge when a guy buys you $900 bottles of wine for dinner?
Oprah ended not necessarily because she was tired of the show, but because the 2009 recession devastated station profits. New Oprah deals starting in 2012 that had previously been at, say, $25,000 a week would have probably dropped to something more like $10,000. That was not something Oprah could tolerate. Not because of the money, by that time meaningless to her, but because of the headline. “Oprah Takes Pay Cut” was not going to happen.
Given how both the consumer and the business have changed over the past eight years, I’m not sure even Oprah could be Oprah today. But you never know. Did I mention Judge Jerry Springer also launched this week?
This is one in a series of occasional columns from Hank Price, a media consultant, author and speaker. He is the author of Leading Local Television, a handbook for general managers. He spent 30 years managing TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago and KARE Minneapolis. He also served as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center and is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.