As Oprah Winfrey ponders moving her talk show to her nascent cable network OWN, she should realize that the decision doesn’t have to be between broadcast syndication and cable. It would be best for all concerned if she opts to do both — give broadcasters the first run and OWN the daily second run. With the exposure afforded by the continuation of her show on broadcast, Oprah can promote her network and its other 23 hours of programming that will be badly in need of promotion.
On her show on Wednesday, Oprah persuaded the poor Connecticut woman whose face was ripped off by a rampaging 200-pound chimp to unveil what was left of it. It was painful to see.
Equally painful may be Sarah Palin’s effort to demonstrate that she is not the Michael Scott of national politics when she makes her much ballyhooed appearance with Oprah on Monday. The match could be as compelling as Sarah vs. Katie, which, you’ll recall, Katie won by a TKO.
It’s hard to imagine broadcast TV without Oprah. But that prospect is once again before the industry.
Last Friday, Oprah denied a report that she has already decided to move her show to OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, the overdue cable network that she is launching with Discovery Communications. Her broadcast syndication deal with CBS expires after the end of the 2010-11 season.
However, the report prompted her to promise to all the broadcasters that carry her show that a decision on renewal would come by the end of the year.
So, the fact is Oprah may migrate to cable after a quarter century in broadcasting — an extraordinary run that has made her a billionaire two times over and one of the most influential women in the world.
Most seem to be waiting for an either-or decision, either broadcast or cable. That is apparently how Discovery wants it.
But I don’t see why it has to be that way.
She could do both. She could continue to do her show, giving broadcasters the first run and OWN the daily second run.
It makes sense for her and Discovery.
TV stations are still the closest thing to mass media that we still have in this country. That is to say, they are still the best way to promote everything from new cars to presidential candidates to new TV programs.
With the exposure afforded by the continuation of her show on broadcast, Oprah can promote her network and its other 23 hours of programming that will be badly in need of promotion. She can use her broadcast air to introduce and nurture talent for her network as she has with Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz for broadcast syndication.
Oprah still appreciates the power of broadcasting. When her production company went looking for an outlet for Dr. Oz, it didn’t go to cable. It went to broadcast syndication. She is now doing the same thing with home decorator Nate Berkus.
And surely she understands what fellow daytime diva Martha Stewart is doing.
Martha is essentially buying her way onto big-time TV stations because she understands that her broadcast show is the engine that drives her entire multimedia empire.
Basic cable is a tricky business. You can get lost out there in the outer limits of the 500-channel universe.
It’s hard to imagine Oprah fading from the American consciousness, but it could happen. Look at Howard Stern.
Mel Karmazin lured him to satellite radio and made him an extremely rich man. But his cultural influence and his celebrity has been diminishing ever since he walked away from traditional radio broadcasting.
And remember Dan Rather? Me neither.
So, what would Oprah’s broadcast outlets get in return for their loss of exclusivity?
They should get what they need the most: a reduction in the licensee fees that they pay for the show.
With ad revenue down steeply and probably permanently, TV stations are resetting their costs to align with the new revenue reality. Among other things, that means that they can no longer afford to pay steep license fees for Oprah or any other syndicated show.
“Oprah is one of the best broadcasters of all time,” says one industry observer. “There’s still immense respect for her. But financially, people are ready to get out from under that burden.”
Last week, CBS announced that it had renewed Dr. Phil in 70 percent of the country. To do it, they had to trim the license fees, substantially, some broadcasters say.
Now, Oprah is a far better act than Phil and her ratings, although not what they once were, are still up there (season to date, Oprah has a national rating of 5.3, tops in the talk show genre and up 8 percent year to year, while Dr. Phil is No. 2 at a 2.8). Broadcasters will not demand or need discounts for Oprah as steep as those they are getting for Phil.
Yes, Oprah isn’t what she used to be. Nothing in broadcast TV is. But she’s an icon and an institution and all that. And there is nothing out there that is going to deliver the viewers to the evening news in the numbers that she will. Nothing.
Even stations that have had to compete against her for years and years and curse her name benefit from her presence in broadcasting. Like the Super Bowl and the World Series, she is part of what makes broadcasting special.
Broadcasters need to keep her around, even if they have to share her with cable.
And Oprah needs to recognize the full value of broadcasting and do something she probably hasn’t done since her show debuted on WLS Chicago nearly 26 years ago: Take a pay cut.