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If 'Oprah' Goes, Time Slot War Starts

Whether The Oprah Winfrey Show will remain on the air after its contract expires in fall 2011 is an open question. By 2011, the Discovery-owned Oprah Winfrey Network will be two years old, and Discovery chief David Zaslav indicated during his company's Nov. 7 earnings report that he expects Winfrey's syndicated show to wrap after her current deal expires. It's a question that both syndicators and stations are pondering anew.

For years, producers of first-run syndicated programming have salivated over the day when Oprah's afternoon time slots—particularly those on the 10 big-market ABC-owned stations—would open up. But if Oprah indeed does leave the marketplace in 2011, some stiff competition is emerging: There's a good chance many key Oprah time slots will go to local news.

“Right now, I think that Walter Liss [president of ABC Owned Television Stations] is thinking that if Oprah goes away, it will be news that goes in there. He's very public about that,” says Brian Frons, president of daytime for the Disney-ABC Television Group. Liss did not respond to requests for comment.

While replacing Oprah with local news may seem like a radical notion, it's the financially conservative bet in a belt-tightening era, and brass at Disney's ABC-owned stations have told syndicators they are considering it. Adding another newscast to the lineup isn't too costly for stations that are already news-heavy, and ABC's local newscasts win most of their markets and time periods. The sets, talent and production staffs are already in place, so it's relatively simple to keep the cameras rolling and the copy coming in for another hour.

Oprah is expensive. Stations generally are not able to earn back the show's high license fee just by airing the show alone. In fact, stations usually draw from their news revenues to pay for Oprah. “If you look at [Oprah] in isolation, the math doesn't really work,” says one station executive.

But Oprah also brings a huge audience to stations' local newscasts that is much younger than any newscast draws on its own. This is one of the biggest arguments syndicators make to stations for replacing Oprah with first-run.

“If you put news in those slots, you are going to disenfranchise the younger viewers,” says Jim Paratore, executive producer of Warner Bros.' Ellen, Bonnie and TMZ and formerly president of first-run powerhouse Telepictures. “As a producer, I would want to be in there making the case that if we had the right product, it would be the better way to go.”

While the big market clearances are important to first-run success, there are some 200 non-ABC-owned Oprah stations that would also have open time slots should the show sign off, so there are plenty of targets for a possible first-run replacement. That's an opportunity syndicators should be planning for now, say both station and syndication executives.


“If I'm a syndicator, I'm all over this situation right now,” says another station executive. “Three years from now is really five minutes from now, so if you are a syndicator, you need to have a game plan and you need to be in heavy development. But I'm not seeing that from anyone. I'm seeing a lot of little shows, but no big shows.”

That's how Frons sees it as well, while admitting he sees the challenges. “For something that will do a real number with that audience five days a week, 52 weeks a year, it's not so easy,” he says. “I don't see Oprah's replacement on the air right now, nor have I seen Oprah's replacement on tapes I've been given to look at. Even if you go back and look at the early days of that show, you see somebody who is representing a voice that wasn't on TV in that moment in time.”

Janice Marinelli, president of Disney-ABC Domestic Television, and Frons say that should Winfrey leave the syndication world, the company will work together to find the right solution.

“The ABC stations are our partners,” Marinelli says. “As time rolls on and Oprah makes her decisions and Walter makes his decisions, we at Disney-ABC Domestic Television and the ABC TV Stations are going to make the right decision for The Walt Disney Co.”

With Melissa Grego