"The Oprah Winfrey Show" signs off today after a storied 25-year run. Ever since the Queen of Daytime announced her plans 18 months ago to call it quits, fans and the TV industry have been asking:
"Who will replace her?"
To answer literally, one of her proteges, Dr. Oz, will inherit her time slots, mostly at 4 p.m., on the majority of the TV stations that carry her show. Other stations will expand their local newscasts or air other talk shows to fill the slots.
But in a cultural context, it's impossible to fill her role as celebrity gabber, spiritual guru, book champion and live-your-best-lifer.
"It's a silly question. Nobody can replace her," says Anderson Cooper, who, along with many others, will try to fill a void with his new syndicated daytime talk show this fall.
Instead, "you find something else that adds to the landscape of daytime," says Lyle Schwartz, analyst at ad firm GroupM. "'The Office' didn't replace 'Friends,' and nothing ever replaced 'The Cosby Show.'"
Winfrey's exit comes amid an upheaval in daytime broadcasting. After 23 years on national TV, Regis Philbin is calling it quits in November, imperiling his long-running "Live With Regis and Kelly," which plans to replace him.
ABC is canceling two soap operas, "All My Children" in September and "One Life to Live" in January, citing high costs and sagging ratings. Three other daytime dramas have been axed in the past four years, replaced by cheaper talk or game shows, which leaves just four. And "Entertainment Tonight" founding co-host Mary Hart packed it in last Friday after her 29-year run.
"It's a jump ball for everybody," says Oz executive producer Mindy Borman. And it all adds up to a "major disruption" that will leave daytime devotees scrambling for alternatives, says Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Warner Bros.' Telepictures Productions. "There's really never been this kind of sea change in daytime. There's never been this many changes in stalwart hosts with this much audience appeal." Viewers won't "abandon TV, but what will they watch?"
Winfrey has no clue. "I haven't thought about it," she says. "I did my part. Anderson Cooper and Katie Couric are coming along, and I say, 'Have at it, y'all!'"
Telepictures is readying CNN's Cooper for Anderson, due Sept. 12. Couric's show, to be distributed by ABC but still unconfirmed, wouldn't start until fall 2012, when actress and talk-show veteran Ricki Lake also is considering a daytime comeback.
For now, thanks to similarities in viewership, Ellen DeGeneres might pick up some viewers. And Winfrey's cable network, OWN, will serve up lightning-rod Rosie O'Donnell in a new 4 p.m. ET/PT show this fall.
Appearances on 80 Oprah shows were "tremendously helpful" in the successful launch of "Dr. Oz," says John Weiser, president of U.S. distribution at Sony Pictures Television. "It's very rare for a show to come out of the gate to be an instant hit." "Dr. Phil" has been even more successful, with Phil McGraw the No. 2 talk host, though Winfrey's newest pal, Nate Berkus, is less so. ("Judge Judy," with 9.8 million viewers, is the most-watched daytime series.)
Is Dr. Mehmet Oz worried about measuring up to his mentor? "I don't sense pressure; I sense responsibility to provide the audience the same service that she has offered," Oz says. "Even if I did get her ratings, I'd have to do it for 25 years to get my name mentioned in the same sentence as hers."
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