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Oprah’s New Venture: Can She Still Mobilize Fan Base?

November 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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After decades as a popular talk show host, Oprah Winfrey will end her daytime program to concentrate on a new cable channel. Jeffrey Brown examines Winfrey's mark on the media landscape.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me for more is Eric Deggans, media critic for The Saint Petersburg Times in Florida.

So, what — tell us, what is known about Oprah, why she is ending her program and heading for cable TV?

ERIC DEGGANS, The Saint Petersburg Times: Sure.

Oprah — Oprah’s contract to do her syndicated TV show was about to run out at the end the 2011. She had to make a decision about whether she was going to keep doing the show. And, instead of keeping doing the show, she has decided to stop.

Now, we’re assuming that she’s going to take a show to a cable channel that she is developing with the Discovery Communications Group called the Oprah Winfrey Network. But she has not announced that she is going to do a show for them. But the rumors in Hollywood land and TV land are that she is going to do some kind of different show, not like the show she is doing now, for that cable channel.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Well, before we get to this future cable network, first, I mean, we see why viewers care about this, but explain why this matters in the world of media business. Why is she such a force? And how does — how does this reverberate?

ERIC DEGGANS: Well, obviously, Oprah is a cultural icon, and, more than that, she is an icon in the TV business. She leaves the highest rated syndicated TV show right now.

And that business has been in decline. Oprah herself, even though she is still the highest rated, has seen her ratings go down by half in recent years. And there was a sense that she would not earn the kind of money from the show that she has been earning. She might have to take up to a 50 percent cut in revenues, because TV stations are hurting right now.

The recession has hit them hard. They are not getting the kind of advertising revenue they are used to. And they can’t pay the kind of big money they used to pay to have “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

So, her moving to cable is a sense that, with her vote, she is voting for the future of her brand and the future of her celebrity with cable television, as opposed to broadcast. And that’s very significant.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what does she leave behind? I mean, who is hurt in the network world? She’s got one network, ABC, where most of her shows air. She’s got another one, I think CBS, that syndicates her show. And she’s got all these programs that she leads into that care about having her, right?

ERIC DEGGANS: Exactly.

You have named all the big people who are going to be hurt by her departure. CBS Television bought the syndicator that handles the Oprah Winfrey Network some time ago. They are going to lose a lot of money. ABC stations across the country mostly handle her show. So, they are used to this huge audience being fed into their 5:00 p.m. local newscasts. So, all of those stations are going to be looking at, what can we do now to replace Oprah Winfrey?

Here in Tampa, an NBC affiliate airs her show, and they have had the top 5:00 p.m. newscast for some years now. That whole balance of power is going to shift. And we will be seeing these kinds of things in markets all across the country once she leaves on September 9, 2011.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, we — I mentioned the seven million viewers a day. You said that’s down from the past. But that’s still a pretty big number.

Who are those people, and how does that compare to the rest of the field in daytime or, for that matter, the nighttime talk shows?

ERIC DEGGANS: Well, I think there is a sense that Oprah has sort of been the ultimate voice for women on television, certainly in the last 10 years, if not longer. And, so, there is a sense that she speaks directly to the women of America.

And I think those are the people that are most attracted to her show. Now, once she leaves, who will take over that voice? A lot of people are looking to Ellen DeGeneres, who seems to be the second most popular woman on daytime television. Bonnie Hunt also hosts a show.

And then there is also a sense that Oprah has created a lot of smaller successors. She has created Dr. Phil. She has created Rachael Ray. She has helped develop “The Dr. Oz Show” that just debuted this year in syndication. So, some those people are likely to pick up her audience as well.

And there may be some new hosts. Marie Osmond was trying to develop a syndicated TV show. If I was a syndicator looking to develop a new show, I might take another look at her, now that Oprah is going to be away from the field.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Eric, finally, this move to cable, I mean, it’s a gamble, even for Oprah, right? What are the pitfalls of making a shift like this for her and in this balance you are talking about between networks and cable?

ERIC DEGGANS: Well, cable is essentially a niche medium. It is garnered — it’s focused on attracting a small sliver of audience.

So, the danger for Oprah is that she no longer has the cultural significance and the fame that she once had. When you are a broadcaster, you reach everybody. When you are in cable, you reach a smaller sliver of people.

Now, they’re big fans and they’re intensely engaged with your brand. And that is what she will gain. But she may lose the ability to make a bestselling book, the way she used to be able to, or start a huge nationwide buying trend, the way she used to be able to.

That is going to be her test. Can she still get people across the country to react to her brand in the way that she used to, when she would hold up a book and say, buy this, or find a trend of society and say, this is worth taking a look at.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, but she is big enough that the whole industry has to watch, right?

ERIC DEGGANS: Oh, most definitely.

And I have a feeling that, you know, even what she does in cable, that will be a small part of her brand. She still has a magazine. She is still on satellite radio. She still has a Web presence. And I have a feeling all of those things are going to get tweaked once she moves and starts her own cable channel.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Eric Deggans, thanks for joining us.

ERIC DEGGANS: Thank you.