For syndicators and stations, 2011 will forever be The Year That Oprah Left.
But Oprah’s not the only one saying farewell this year. The iconic Mary Hart, who has hosted Entertainment Tonight since 1982, also will take her final bow, handing off syndication’s top magazine to former rival Access Hollywood anchor Nancy O’Dell.
When Oprah goes off the air in September, with a series finale scheduled for May, stations will be bereft of the most successful talk show of all time. That will affect stations in two opposing ways: They will be freed from paying daytime’s most expensive license fees, but they will also lose daytime’s highest-rated show.
When Winfrey announced in November 2009 that her show was coming to an end, the initial reaction was that a giant opportunity was presenting itself for new daytime fare. That has turned out to be less than true: For the most part, existing syndicated shows—particularly Warner Bros.’ Ellen and Sony’s Dr. Oz—will slide into the Oprah time slots.
But some stations—notably, Oprah flagship WLS Chicago—will fill Winfrey’s slot with local original programming or extend their local afternoon newscasts. The only new show to benefit from Oprah’s departure is Warner Bros.’ Anderson, hosted by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, which thus far has won the Winfrey time period in three markets.
“Stations feel it’s important to invest in their overall schedules, but right now the difficulty is the environment,” says Bill Carroll, VP of programming for Katz Television Programming Group. “What you can get for commercial time in daytime is not commensurate for what the cost of daytime programming would be. That’s difficult to justify. We’re never again going to see license fees like Oprah got. The real question is: What’s a reasonable price to pay for what you can expect to get in return?”
That gap between what it costs to produce a successful daytime talk show and what stations are able to earn in those time periods is why launching a first-run program has become ever more challenging. Meanwhile, top-notch off-network sitcoms and other off-net fare are setting sales records.
“The shows that are generating record license fees in off-net are proven commodities,” says the head of one major syndication company. “There’s no denying the success of Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and now ModernFamily. Right now, there’s nothing else out there at that level.”
The key then is finding a first-run show that’s as proven a hit as these off-net programs. Oprah’s departure makes that job harder: Besides Ellen, every successful daytime launch since Dr. Phil in 2002 has been an Oprah spinoff. That’s why some syndicators are excited at the prospect of having a show to sell starring Katie Couric, a known daytime talent who is said to be considering her options as her CBS News contract nears its end.
“Katie is a pretty incredible opportunity for anybody,” says one syndicator.
Meanwhile, a few shows continue to battle for first-run berths. CBS Television Distribution is shopping Jay McGraw’s The Lawyers as well as Renegade’s late-fringe dating show, Excused. Sony has shot a pilot with Dr. Oz’ wife, Lisa.
Other options for 2011 have failed to get off the ground: Debmar-Mercury’s Fran Drescher, which aired in a threeweek test between Thanksgiving and Christmas, is a no-go.
With stations having made their Oprah decisions, business is nearly closed for 2011, shifting all eyes to 2012. That year already looks promising, with a presidential election and Summer Olympics on the slate. And by then, stations may decide that their Oprah replacements aren’t working out as well as they had hoped, which could open up some opportunities.
Finally, unsettled business at two of the country’s top station groups—NBC Universal and Tribune—is expected to become settled in 2012. Both groups make programming decisions in top markets, and their moves trickle down to stations in the rest of the country.
Comcast’s merger with NBC should close early in 2011, and distributors hope that transition will cause NBC to get more aggressive about acquiring syndicated fare. And Tribune should finally settle its dispute with creditors and emerge from bankruptcy.
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