'Oprah' sign-off leaves huge void

Commentary: Move will roil already fragile local TV stations

'Oprah Winfrey Show' coming to an end

The most telling indication that Oprah Winfrey was about to make the big decision was the cover of last month's "O" magazine. To actually share space with Ellen DeGeneres (who, after all, fronts a rival afternoon talk show) and later have her on "Oprah" as the main guest was a subtle if unconscious anointing of one queen of talk by another.

Thursday's news that Winfrey is exiting the first-run fray she will have dominated for 25 years is nothing less than a paradigm shift, one that will roil the already fragile local TV station business for the next two years. She was a king maker, after all, and without her to set the standard, there is going to be a scramble -- indeed a power grab --throughout the realm.

The ABC O&Os and many affiliate stations, which are "Oprah's' historic home, will be affected right off the bat. Sure, "Oprah" is hugely expensive for them, but what she does is provide a reliably substantial lead-in for their local newscasts, which is where they make most of their money. With her gone, all bets are off.

As one syndie veteran summed it up for me, "If you now have 'Oprah,' you're depressed; if you don't, you're ecstatic."

That's where "Ellen" comes in. The younger-skewing gabber, which is distributed by Warner Bros., got its start on the NBC O&Os, where the original license fees, as usual in start-up deals, were quite low.

Those NBC station deals will be coming up for renewal soon, and with ABC looking for an "Oprah" replacement, "Ellen's" timing looks impeccable -- and advantageous for Warners, as well.

It could be argued too that "Ellen" is more attuned to the current cultural zeitgeist than "Oprah" is, or more simply that her more light-hearted approach and tone sits better with audiences in depressing times like these.

Not that anything in syndication is straightforward.

A couple of other pretenders to the throne will vie for attention too. CBS' "Dr. Phil," a show that Winfrey helped nurture into first-run fame, could take advantage of the looming vacuum. Until now, that talk show could not contractually go head-to-head with "Oprah" in the afternoon, but once the latter is gone, CBS will be working to upgrade the relationship therapist to those coveted 4 p.m. slots.

Then there's Sony, which has fielded several interesting candidates in the talk-show fray, including "Dr. Oz," and, presumably beginning in September, the lifestyle-themed "Nate Berkus." They too might be poised to take advantage of the free-for-all come fall 2011.

"It's going to be the clash of the titans," is how another syndie onlooker described what the next 18 months will look like behind the scenes and on the road as the big guns in first-run jostle for position.

No doubt the syndie salesman par excellence Roger King, who essentially did whatever it took to put "Oprah" on the map and then renew the bejesus out of it for 20 years, is looking down on all this.

King would immediately have pulled a rabbit out of his hat and had an instant replacement. We'll see what others can do.
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