News Column

Who Will Fill the Void Left by Oprah?

May 25, 2011

Gary Levin

Oprah with the Obamas during the last presidential campaign
Oprah with the Obamas during the last presidential campaign

"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."

Daytime by the Numbers

Despite increases in the numbers of working women, daytime viewing hasn't changed all that much, Nielsen figures show. At any given time, 15 percent of the core daytime viewers women ages 18 to 49 were watching last season, a percentage that's unchanged from 20 years ago.

But with dramatically splintered viewing habits, the shift to cable has been startling as networks such as TLC, Lifetime and Bravo seek that same audience. About 44 percent of daytime viewing was on cable this season, nearly double the share of broadcast, where viewership has dropped more rapidly than in prime time.

Hoopla over Oprah's exit has boosted her ratings 10% this season, to 6.4 million viewers, though long-term her audience has been aging and declining; it's now at about half its peak. Soaps also have been slippery; "All My Children's" audience of younger women has been cut in half over the past five years.

"It's change that's generational," says Brian Frons, daytime chief for ABC Television Group. "Serials for the most part are baby boomer programs, and as boomers age out of the key selling demographic, we need to look at alternatives."

Younger viewers, he says, are "looking for an upbeat tone, they want entertaining relevance, more talk and reality than scripted drama. They're looking to us for shows that help improve their lives, rather than escape from their lives."

So taking a page from cable (and importing names such as Tim Gunn and Clinton Kelly), ABC will try "The Chew," a food-centric roundtable show to replace "All My Children," and "The Revolution," focusing on weight loss, when "One Life to Live" signs off. Each will cost 30 to 40 percent less to produce.

Daytime dramas' appeal has been mined by prime-time reality shows such as ABC's "The Bachelor" and the real-life celeb soap-operas covered on 24-hour cable news. "The biggest change happened (with the broadcast of) the O.J. Simpson trial, (which) was more dramatic than anything any writer could come up with," says longtime analyst Bill Carroll of Katz Television Group.

Stephanie Sloane, editorial director for Soap Opera Digest and Soap Opera Weekly, says: "The kind of escapism and romance these shows offer will always be appealing to a group of people." But while Frons hopes the few remaining soaps such as "General Hospital" "will survive all this," Sloane is keenly aware that the genre is a dying breed. "At the end of this decade, if we're still talking about daytime soaps as regular programming, I'd be happily surprised."

Ratings, Not Costs, Declined

Even Oprah's departure is not inciting gloom in every station that's losing it, says Wells Fargo analyst Marci Ryvicker. Winfrey's "ratings have been declining, yet programming costs have not been coming down," she says. "Station owners are saying, 'We can probably spend half the amount and get similar ratings on our stations and still be more profitable.'" Winfrey's show "definitely made a lot of money over the years, but most of that accrued to her."

But that analysis understates Winfrey's positive ratings effect on local newscasts that follow her show, where stations make most of their profits. "Oprah was the quintessential news lead-in," says Emerson Coleman, programming chief at Hearst-Argyle, a major station owner. Her show "impacted your 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts like no other show in television. That's why stations paid a premium."

The theory: "If the audience trusted me, they will trust the news broadcast that comes after me. That dynamic is very important for our stations," Oz says.

And Winfrey's effect on the audience is undeniable. Maury Povich, who has been on TV as long as Oprah, says previous daytime monarch Phil Donahue "set the way in which audiences became part of the show; he was in the audience more than any of us." But Winfrey's willingness to open up about her struggles over abuse and weight loss made her a relatable ally. "Oprah's unveiling of her personal life attracted a huge audience, and that was the key to her stardom," Povich says.

"She underscored the fact that a television personality could make a difference in the way we approach issues," Carroll says. "She raised the level of conversation at a time when elsewhere on television the conversation was becoming more strident," as her contemporaries Sally Jessy Raphael, Jerry Springer, Povich and others embraced the "Who's your baby daddy?" path to ratings.

Aspirants to Winfrey's throne emphasize the need to bond with viewers. In contrast to nightly news' doom and gloom, "it's nice on the daytime format to focus on things that connect us," Cooper says. "I really like involvement with an audience. I've been reporting for 19 years and like to try new things."

Instead of politicians and pundits, he'll cast a wider net, from celebrity interviews to social issues, and from "current events to Beverly Hills housewives."

McLoughlin says Cooper will fill a void. "He has the relevance, the skill set and the credibility to cover the range of topics that will be gone when Oprah leaves," especially "real people overcoming adversity and transformational stories. It's the kind of fodder women connect with, and he's a great storyteller."

Winfrey won't stop telling stories, either. She'll move to OWN in January, promising 70 episodes a year of "Oprah's Next Chapter," where the globe-trotting host will profile "fascinating, sometimes famous people in interesting places" without a studio audience. "What is different about the 'Next Chapter' is, I am not tied to the chair."



Source: Copyright USA Today 2011


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