Major Oprah renewals to 2004

King World is expected to announce this week or next that it has renewed The Oprah Winfrey Show in about 70% of the country for the two-year renewal cycle that goes through August 2004.

Station groups that have re-upped (or nearly so) include ABC, Hearst-Argyle Television, Scripps Howard and Cox Broadcasting.

As recently as two weeks ago, CBS station executives were hopeful that they might have a shot at taking

away from the ABC group. Sources say CBS-owned stations were "very aggressive" in their pursuit of the show. But it wasn't to be. Part of the reason, sources say, is Oprah Winfrey's desire not to shift from the powerhouse ABC stations to the CBS O&Os.

It certainly would have been a welcome boost to the CBS group (co-owned with King World by Viacom), which is third behind the ABC and NBC stations in most of the big markets.

But one source likens not renewing

at a station to losing the NFL: It's a valuable franchise that's hard to replace. "She's a unique property," says one station executive. "That one show means the difference between success and failure in both early fringe and local news for many stations." In most cases, the show is a lead-in to early evening newscasts.

Terms for the latest two-year cycle will be different: higher license fees and fewer original episodes per season. Sources confirm that production will drop from the current 36 weeks per season to 26 weeks. The quid pro quo: Stations will get a little more local ad time to sell in the show.

Currently, King World sells three minutes of national ad time in the show, while stations get 101/2 minutes of local time to sell. In the new cycle, sources say, stations will get an additional 30 seconds to sell per episode.

Under the current three-year renewal cycle, which goes through the 2001-02 season, terms call for original production to be reduced from 40 weeks (200 episodes) to 34 weeks (170 episodes). Production is being cut because Winfrey has other projects, sources say.

Station executives aren't thrilled about the cut in original production. "We would have preferred if it remained where it was, but it's not, and that's the way it is. We also think she's a strong enough talent to carry it off," said one station executive whose group purchased the show.

Executives say they don't think the cutback will affect ratings. But, as one executive candidly puts it, "you just don't know until you see it."

King World has kept mum on the renewal process and had no comment last week, preferring to wait and make a big splash with an announcement about multiple renewals. But, in the past couple of weeks, company Chairman Roger King has personally met with and pitched renewal terms to the biggest incumbents.