"Oprah" in trouble?

(Editor’s Note: A rough draft appeared earlier here by mistake, resulting in an error in the second paragraph which has since been corrected. In other words, the word “repeat” should have been where “new” was. – T.H.)

Maybe yesterday’s White Sox-Royals brawl may serve as an indication people in Kansas City (and certainly Minnesota) may be sick of anything coming out of Chicago – maybe even a certain presidential candidate…

An item on Aaron Barnhart’s TV Barn site reports The Oprah Winfrey Show finished a surprising fourth in Kansas City on ABC affiliate KMBC-TV in households during July with repeat episodes, finishing behind a newscast on CBS affiliate KCTV and Judge Judy on Fox affiliate WDAF-TV and game shows on NBC affiliate KSHB-TV (yes, KSHB – the former Fox affiliate on Channel 41.)

Not only that, Oprah came in second or third in many metered markets in households, and was beaten by CBS daytime soap The Young & The Restless in at least two of them (I assume St. Louis and Raleigh, N.C., where in the latter market, CBS affiliate WRAL-TV clearly dominates the ratings.)

While Oprah still dominates the ratings in her home base of Chicago, her ratings have slipped nationwide. According to a recent edition of Marc Berman’s Programming Insider, season-to-date ratings for Oprah (through July 13, 2008) were down 15 percent in households, down 17 percent in women 25-54, and down 18 percent in adults 25-54 – all from the year-ago time period (through mid-July 2007.)

To be fair, keep in mind Oprah is still the top-rated talk show in syndication in households and in key demos. And a lot of daytime and early fringe programs have suffered ratings erosion over the last few years, as viewers have more choices in the household and can DVR or tape programs to watch later.

This becomes more interesting as Ms. Winfrey’s contract comes up in three years. Winfrey doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with her current distributor (CBS Television Distribution) as she did with King World, which was bought by CBS in 1999. Her latest talk project – a medical show featuring Dr. Memhet Oz – was picked up by Sony Pictures for fall 2009 to compete with CBS’ The Doctors – a project produced by Oprah protege Dr. Phil McGraw which debuts this fall.

And since CBS owns Judge Judy, they are more likely to tout that program’s successful performance. While Winfrey’s show is also distributed by CBS, it’s owned by her Harpo production company. Stations also get a sweet deal with Judy, since license fees they pay on their current deal are lower than they are for Oprah’s.

Moreover, Oprah now has to compete with earlier local newscasts on rival stations, who can make a tidy profit because they don’t have to fork out any large sums of money or commercial time to a syndicator. NBC affiliate WTMJ in Milwaukee used to carry Oprah but dropped it in 1993 because they weren’t willing to pay King World higher license fees. The station now runs news at 4 p.m. and Oprah now airs on ABC affiliate WISN-TV.

Ms. Winfrey has also stayed out of politics during most of her time in the spotlight. But out of nowhere, she endorsed Barack Obama for President. Some say the endorsement hurt her show whose core demo (women 25-54) was solidly behind Hilary Clinton. Her magazine has also suffered year-to-year circulation declines. Another reason for the ratings decline is maybe we’re just getting Oprahed-out.

Only thing I can say is this could be the biggest shift in daytime TV since Winfrey herself came on the scene all the way back in 1986. If Oprah’s ratings continue to slide, you can bet there will be some changes on West Washington Blvd.

And if Oprah Winfrey replaces herself with Ozzie Guillen, then the audience would really flee for the exits.

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