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The Real Post-‘Oprah’ Era Opportunity

Syndicators have been salivating at the chance to grab the time slots occupied by CBS TV Distribution’s The Oprah Winfrey Show since the first whiff of rumor that Oprah might end her program. But as the industry looks to fall 2011, when the show will actually conclude at the end of its 25th season, the real opportunity is proving to be stations’ ability to cut costs rather than fi nd the next big thing.

“Oprah’s ratings have eroded so much that the image of Oprah is much stronger than the reality of Oprah, either as a news lead-in or as a money-maker,” says one station executive. “In many cases, Oprah is a stunning loss leader. There are people who are deeply thankful she is calling it quits.”

Some solid new syndie performers have debuted in recent seasons, and syndication hopefuls continue to campaign for new projects, such as the Rosie O’Donnell vehicle that former Warner Bros. bigwigs Dick Robertson and Scott Carlin are pitching. But no heir apparent exists—for Oprah’s time slot, viewers or license fees.

“Once Oprah leaves, her viewers are going to be dispersed and they aren’t going to go to some new show,” says a top syndication executive. “It will be a bit of musical chairs in a way. I don’t think it’s an unbelievably huge opportunity.”

Insiders expect daytime audiences to turn to established shows, such as Warner Bros.’ Ellen, Sony Pictures TV’s Dr. Oz or CTD’s Dr. Phil, to get their talk fix. Several of the ABC-owned stations that now air Oprah intend to replace that show with local newscasts, which are unlikely to get Oprah-sized ratings but are far cheaper, according to reports. The ABC network also is reportedly considering moving its daytime talk panel, The View, to the afternoon or taking it off the network and selling it in syndication. ABC declined to comment.

Oprah no longer draws the kind of ratings it did in its heyday: From 2004 to 2009, the show’s ratings fell 35% among households and 43% among adults 18- 49. That’s refl ective of daytime’s overall state, which has seen ratings fragment. Depressed ratings mean less money, which is why no show in the past year has sold for any signifi cant cash. Sony sold Nate Berkus to NBC’s station groups for $100,000 per week, while Warner Bros.’ renewal of Ellen on that same group was in the neighborhood of $250,000 per week. By comparison, Oprah receives approximately $250,000 per week from KABC Los Angeles alone.

Stations are unable to pay big license fees even if they wanted to, and with daytime ratings so small, no syndicated show is likely to see Oprah money again. According to Bill Carroll, VP of programming for Katz Media Group: “What syndicators are really going for when Oprah leaves isn’t replacing her show, but upgrading theirs.”