T Dog’s Think Tank: So what happens if "Oprah" exits?

With Oprah Winfrey scheduled to run her new cable network in a joint venture with Discovery beginning next year, there is increasing speculation she may discontinue her daily talk show strip when her contract with CBS Television Distribution expires in 2011.

The speculation increased when Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav revealed in an earnings report a few days ago that Ms. Winfrey is discontinuing her talk show in three years, and focus on her joint venture with Discovery. Harpo Productions immediately debunked the notion, stating no decision has been made regarding The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011.

But the controversy has forced stations who carry the number one talk show in syndication to tackle the inedible: What to do when Oprah Winfrey walks away.

For years, stations carrying the popular Oprah as a news lead-in received a bucketload of revenue – particularly the seven out of ten ABC O&Os who carry her (ABC stations in Houston, Flint, and Toledo don’t carry the show), while her presence has devoured the competition. And for stations who let Oprah go to a rival, the ratings went with it. This was the case in Baltimore, where ABC affiliate WMAR-TV let Oprah go to rival NBC affiliate WBAL-TV in 1995. The result: WBAL is the market’s number one station, while WMAR’s ratings have cratered and never recovered.

Closer to home in Milwaukee, ABC affiliate WISN-TV acquied Oprah in 1993 from NBC affiliate WTMJ, after the station refused to pay then-syndicator King World a price increase. Though WTMJ’s news leads at 10 p.m., and does respectively well in other news time periods, WISN leads at 5 and 6 p.m. – time slots WTMJ used to dominate.

Those two cases alone tell you how powerful Oprah Winfrey is.

For six ABC O&Os, the decision on what to do post-Oprah in early fringe may be simple – the station group is considering expanding its newscasts to 3 or 4 p.m. to fill the time slot Oprah may leave vacant. This way, the station group won’t have to pay a syndicator to air programming. That’s bad news for them, who had been eying Oprah’s time slot on those stations. But the changing economic conditions and the growing appetite for local news may have changed those plans, though there’s no telling how the market will be three years from now.

Another option is fare from ABC’s own syndication unit, Disney-ABC Domestic Television – and the option could come into play in this next example.

WLS-TV here in Chicago – the home base for Oprah since 1984 – has aired her show at 9 a.m. for more than twenty years, back to the days she hosted A.M. Chicago. With local news not likely an option, the station could go after Regis & Kelly on WGN-TV – given the morning talk show is distributed by Disney-ABC – whose parent company also owns WLS. Regis & Kelly has had two previous stints in overnight time slots at WLS – from 1990-92 (when it was known as Regis & Kathie Lee) and again from 1999-2002, when it underwent three name changes. Regis Phillbin recently signed a contract extension with Disney-ABC to continue his show, which he co-hosts with Kelly Ripa (who joined the show in 2001, shortly after former co-host Kathie Lee Gifford departed.) Currently, WLS is the only ABC O&O that doesn’t carry the show because of Oprah’s presence at 9 a.m.

More importantly, Oprah sets WLS’ dominance in news and programming throughout the day. But since WLS does so well in this arena – and its’ competitors are nowhere remotely close – Oprah’s departure from the station might not effect the ABC-owned station as dramatically as it could others. While ABC O&Os dominate in New York and Philadelphia, the ratings race is closer in other ABC O&O markets such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. In Raleigh-Durham, N.C., ABC’s WTVD actually finishes second with Oprah – behind CBS soap The Young and the Restless, which market leader WRAL-TV delays until 4 p.m.

Oprah’s possible departure would also effect station group clients such as Scripps, Belo, Allbritton, Hearst-Argyle, and Gannett. Some stations in those groups carry Oprah – many of them ABC affiliates. There is no doubt they will be targeted by syndicators for replacement fare.

The challenge for syndicators is to create a replacement for Oprah, as they believe younger viewers are the key in early fringe and can draw them to news at 4 or 5 p.m. Many of them feel expansion of local news could alienate younger viewers and skew stations’ ratings older than they are now. But what they’re forgetting is local news draws the most lucrative demo in television outside of prime-time – the 25-54 demo – as news draws the most ad dollars for local stations, even if it has no lead-in from a syndicated program.

Already, many stations are airing local news against Oprah in early fringe with some success – in Milwaukee, WTMJ airs news at 4 p.m. opposite Oprah on WISN and it does well. In Philadelphia, both CBS-owned KYW-TV and NBC-owned WCAU-TV also air news at 4 opposite Oprah on ABC-owned WPVI-TV, and in Detroit, NBC affiliate WDIV airs news opposite Oprah on ABC affiliate WXYZ-TV also at 4 p.m., and believe it or not, WDIV often beats WXYZ at 5 p.m, when their newscasts goes head-to-head (keep in mind though, these shows feature the same slop -fires, murders, etc. – you usually see in local news.)

And another reason for the news expansion is because stations are tired of launching new shows in early fringe only to see them fail. Since Oprah launched in syndication in 1986, more than fifty challengers have come and gone, with many of them spectacular flops. Others have done decently well – such as Geraldo, who once featured topless donut-shop operators as a response of his show being up against Oprah in more than 100 markets in 1989 and 1990 (and it proved to be his downfall, as he pledged to clean up his show years later.) Another competitor with a salacious format (Jerry Springer) beat Oprah in one book in 1998, but his ratings slid and is now barely flickering.

But those are expectations to the rule. Usually, new first-run syndicated programs have a 90 percent failure rate – though it recent years, the number has dropped as syndicators are having a little more patience and aren’t spending as much to make the programs as they have done previously. This is why you see 298 courtroom shows on TV – they are economical to produce.

But launching projects like Judge Ozzy Osbourne and The Stephen A. Smith Show isn’t going to be enough to replace the queen of talk. If syndicators are going to nab these time periods should Ms. Winfrey hang it up, they are going to have to develop better programming – not the standard cheapo courtroom and talk show fare they have been launching recently. And it’s not going to be easy, with daytime audiences fragmenting faster than a hard drive. Shows featuring topless Dunkin’ Donut clerks and couples boasting they had sex on the John Deere showroom floor aren’t going to cut it.

Otherwise, we’ll see more local newscasts featuring stories about fires, murders, and celebrity fluff earlier in a lot more markets on a lot more stations. In other words, it’s a choice between syndicated show dysfunction and street dysfunction. And as usual, the viewers – especially those without cable or satellite – lose.