NATPE 2012: It’s Still All About Oprah

Oprah is long gone — she taped her last show for broadcast syndication eight months ago — but her presence (or absence) is still being felt throughout broadcasting and will pervade the NATPE conference next week in Miami Beach. She'll continue to be the measure by which every other talk show evaluates itself and the subject of countless conversations about her impact on broadcasting.

If you read our interview with Ricki Lake this week, you may have noticed that she took a bit of a shot at Oprah Winfrey. With her new talk show from Twentieth Television, Lake said she hoped to be what Oprah was before she became such a big shot and lost the common touch. “She was your girlfriend,” Lake said. “She was not set apart from the audience.”

Oprah is long gone — she taped her last show for broadcast syndication eight months ago — but her presence (or absence) is still being felt throughout broadcasting and will pervade the NATPE conference next week in Miami Beach. That name will keep coming up.

Lake and the other three personalities — Katie Couric, Steve Harvey and Jeff Probst — who will be debuting talk shows this fall are all openly vying for the mantle that Oprah relinquished when she decided to move to cable and devote her considerable energies and talents to developing an eponymous network with Discovery.

“There’s a great opportunity in the marketplace,” says Janice Marinelli, president of Disney-ABC Domestic Television, the purveyor of Katie. “[W]ith Oprah leaving the syndication marketplace, it created not only wonderful time periods on terrific stations, it also created a need. Now, there’s a void.”

Couric and Lake want to fill that void by being “the girlfriend.” While Harvey and Probst won’t be able to pull that off, they aspire to inspire just as Oprah did. Probst told TVNewsCheck that his show will be about “making your life better and accomplishing the things you want to accomplish.” That sounds like “Live Your Best Life” to me.

And they all want her success. In her heart of hearts, I’m certain, even Lake would like nothing more than to achieve the same degree of remoteness that Oprah did. If a billion dollars puts you out of touch with the masses, well, so be it.


“As great as a lot of the hosts have been, the ultimate goal for anybody is to just hope for the success that Oprah had,” says Harvey in an interview we’ll post Monday. “Half the success she had would be great. A third of that would be great.”

Of course, the odds are long against the newcomers from even making it past their initial contracts with stations. That’s why Sony Television is already prepping the second coming of Queen Latifah for fall of 2013.

And any of them would do well to match the success not of Oprah — that may beyond the reach of anybody in today’s fragmented media world — but of such solid veteran shows as Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and Ellen. Each has picked up some of Oprah‘s old audience and settled in.

Broadcasters would like to see some success, too. Each station has bet on one or two of the newcomers. If one pops, they could make piles of money until the license fees catch up with the ratings. That was the trouble with Oprah. In the end, the only one making money on the show was Oprah.

Nobody has quite figured out entirely what the absence of Oprah means for broadcasting. But I can shed some light on the matter.

In the November sweeps two months ago, the first important book in the post-Oprah era, broadcasters lost a lot of viewers in the Oprah time slots, typically 4 p.m. leading into the early news, according to an analysis of the Nielsens in the top 25 markets by Ted Faraone, who has been crunching the numbers for various broadcasters for three decades.

Stations gave up, on average, 6 share points from the November 2010 book, regardless of whether they replaced Oprah with news (as six did) or with other syndicated shows (as 16 did). (Not included in the figuring here is outlier WLS Chicago, Oprah‘s home station. The ABC O&O aired the show at 9 a.m. and lost 11 points.)

Two of the biggest losers were KGO San Francisco, which shed 8 points by substituting news for Oprah as the other ABC O&Os did, and Cox’s WSB Atlanta, which saw 9 share points disappear after it also went with news as an Oprah replacement.

Nobody likes to lose viewers, but the real value of the show (and justificationfor its big fees), I’ve always been told, was as a news lead-in — its ability to pump up the viewership of the news block that followed. But what jumps from Faraone’s analysis is that loss of Oprah didn’t affect the following newscasts all that much.

The 23 newscasts that followed Oprah lost on average only 1 share point from November to November. Seven actually picked up share. The biggest gainer was KCRA Sacramento, Calif., which added 2 points even though its lead-in Oprah replacement, Dr. Oz, was down 5 points.

In only three of the 23 markets did the Oprah station lose its news leadership: WFAA Dallas, WFLA Tampa and WFOR Miami. And in each case, the stations were vulnerable because their leadership was as thin as the circa 2005 Oprah.

For example, in Dallas, WFAA’s 5 o’clock news had an 8 share and its three rivals had 7 shares in November 2010. After replacing Oprah with Oz at 4, the newscast lost 1 share point, but that was enough to drop it to fourth place as the other stations gained share.

In one market, Seattle, Oprah‘s departure had the reverse effect on news leadership. KING, which had been running a close second in 5 p.m. news with the Oprah lead-in in November 2010, picked up 1 share and became news leader in November 2011 after it had replaced Oprah with Ellen. Go figure.

It’s too early to draw any definitive conclusions about the true effectiveness of Oprah as a lead-in and whether those hefty license fees were actually worth it.

There is a lot inertia in TV viewing. People who get used to a certain newscast and group of anchors tend to stick with them regardless of what comes before it. But over time, habits do change. We will have to look again after the May and November books this year and reassess.

In any event, Oprah is not going away anytime soon. She’ll continue to be the measure by which every other talk show evaluates itself. And her effect on programming flow, her value as a news lead-in and her overall impact on the broadcasting business will continue to be the subject of countless conversations — for at least one more NATPE.

See you in Miami Beach.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. You may contact him at 973-701-1067 or [email protected].

Comments (4)

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Gregg Palermo says:

January 20, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Ricki Lake took a bigger shot at Dr. Phil, when she said, I’m not the host who’s a know-it-all. I believe she’s right. Viewers don’t want to be schooled by the host. It’s OK for the guest to be an expert, but when the host always has the answer, the sound of remote control buttons clicking is not far behind.

Matthew Craft & David K. Randall says:

January 20, 2012 at 3:53 pm

I think it’s more accurate to say that the sentimental MEMORY of Oprah is the wistful standard by which current and future talk shows will be measured. At last year’s NATPE — and again at PROMAX — we were hearing similar boasts made on behalf of Oprah spin-offs Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil and poor Nate Birkus. (if only he had earned a PhD in decorating…) as well as Anderson Cooper and especially Ellen DeGeneris, who actively promoted herself as Oprah’s successor. But the truth is that even if Oprah reversed herself and came back to broadcast syndication, it would be a miracle if she matched her former ratings. It would be interesting to hear from a cross-section of news directors whether they feel that they’ve been trying harder to hold onto the late fringe audience since Oprah closed shop.

Meagan Zickuhr says:

January 20, 2012 at 4:13 pm

I’d love to be there but the registration price is outrageous….. much more expensive than CES or NAB. $1050+… Really?

Marilyn Hyder says:

January 21, 2012 at 4:59 am

Oprah’s move to cable may prove to be successful over time, but for now I read in this week’s NY Post that her Gov. Christie interview pulled only of 500,000 HH in prime on OWN vs. the 6-7 HH weekly average rating she was pulling this time last year in broadcast syndication.

Goes to show you that broadcast affiliates were more important to Oprah’s success than she was to theirs.

As Jessell pointed out some month’s ago, those Oprah affiliates gave her a tremendous promotional platform that she’s missing today. In fact, her other major properties–The O Magazine &–are both dramatically down in large part to Oprah loosing her “voice” on her broadcast platform.

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