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Can we talk? Not anymore

When Sally Jessy Raphael's talk show launched in national syndication during the spring of 1984, the daytime-TV landscape was a much different place.

Only Phil Donahue was hosting a nationally syndicated talk show at the time, and single-topic shows that dealt openly with family matters and sexuality were definitely a novelty.

Since then, more than 70 similar talk shows have been launched in syndication, including shows fronted by Oprah Winfrey, Rosie O'Donnell and Jenny Jones—not to mention short-timers like Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Charles Perez and Danny Bonaduce.

And now, the format (or the hosts) is just about spent, some say.

"I think we are at a watershed moment, there's little doubt about that," says Twentieth Television President of Programming Robb Dalton. "But I don't think it's because of big viewing trends. I think it's just a fact that a lot of shows in that first wave of talk have been on television for a long, long time."

Last week, Studios USA Domestic TV executives pulled the plug on The Sally Jessy Raphael Show
after nearly 19 years. Rosie O'Donnell is calling it quits at the end of this season after six years, and Jenny Jones is expected to say adios this spring after 11 years. Even the top-rated talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, is calling it a day as well. Winfrey and distributor King World announced last week that the show is kaput after the 2005-06 season, its 20th anniversary. Talk vets Ricki Lake, Montel Williams and Jerry Springer are expected back this fall despite sluggish ratings.

"The 500-channel universe has changed everything," says Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming at Katz TV Group. "There is now more of everything. There are more talk shows, more court shows, more off-net comedies and dramas. It used to be there were four or five talk shows altogether, which meant talk shows rarely ran against each other. Now, it's not uncommon to have four talk shows running against each other during the same hour each day."

King World CEO Roger King says: "There is more competition from cable, so it's taking the ratings down. But I also think cable networks are buying better shows. Cable has a lot of money, and they are spending it. The broadcasters have to keep pace with what's being spent, or they will get beat."

King insists that Winfrey will still be active on the small screen. "She now wants to move on. She is not going to get out of television, though, after she ends the talk show. Oprah will continue doing television a long way into the future, and I think we'll be involved in that."

Studios USA Domestic Television President Steve Rosenberg says that canceling Raphael's show was a tough call, especially after the studio attempted to revamp it earlier in the season. "We really hoped we could stem the tide and turn the ratings around, and we just haven't been able to do it," he says. "It's been a great show for us and the syndication business going on 20 years. We are really proud of the work she did."

Vertical integration and the continued consolidation of media companies will probably play a key role in the future of daytime television, Katz TV Group's Carroll predicts. "Independent production companies will likely be less a part of the daytime landscape, and programming will now be more specifically designed for station groups and their particular needs."