Syndication Executives Insist Oprah’s Not Leaving Daytime

Oprah Winfrey (Getty Images)

Oprah Winfrey (Getty Images)

It may have been reported as a done deal by a certain influential entertainment-business blog this morning, but TV industry insiders aren’t buying the notion that Oprah Winfrey will ditch her syndicated daytime talk show to focus her media efforts on her new cable network.

“She’s just negotiating,” one top syndication-business analyst told Fancast. “This happens every time her contract comes up for renewal. She’s a bright woman. She understands what she needs to perpetuate her empire, and that’s not going to happen on Discovery Health.”

Of course, come next year, Discovery Health will re-launch as the Oprah Winfrey Network. And it was reported by blogger Nikki Finke Thursday that OWN channel operator Discovery Communications has given a “move your show to cable or lose the channel” ultimatum to Winfrey, whose current syndication deal expires after the 2010-11 TV season.

However, TV business watchers are having a hard time believing Winfrey would give up the broad reach and huge influence of her daytime broadcast show for a cable platform that will have, at launch, a relatively puny subscriber base (70 million).

Media assets like OWN and ‘O’ magazine only exist, they say, because of the power of Winfrey’s daytime show.

“Take the highest rated show on Discovery Health, triple the audience, and that’s going to be at best half of what she does in one day in syndication,” says one analyst, adding, “Do you remember Phil Donahue?”

Donahue, of course, was once one of the daytime TV’s most powerful figures, but his profile faded after he took his act to cable’s MSNBC.

Meanwhile, Winfrey watchers are also finding it hard to believe that Discovery would dare give an ultimatum to Oprah.

“I don’t believe Oprah Winfrey would sit there and take that for a minute without walking out of that meeting,” said one syndication executive. “She’d tell them, ‘I don’t need you, you need me.’”

Like everything else on daytime television, ratings have been way down in recent years for ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ which is coming off its worst summer on record, audience-wise, and averaging a 5.4 metered-market rating, according to Nielsen. That number is half of what it was a decade ago.

ABC owned and operated stations, which license the show from CBS TV Distribution in the biggest TV markets, pay through the nose for the program, with WABC-TV in the Big Apple coughing up $310,000 a week for ‘Oprah,’ and KABC-TV in L.A. paying $230,000.

And they’re getting less ‘Oprah’ than ever – Winfrey’s current contract requires her to produce only 26 weeks of original episodes next season — normal daytime shows do about 39 weeks of originals.

However, ‘Oprah’ is still by far the most popular, influential show on daytime television. And the stations that license it not only get Winfrey’s still robust audience, they are able to use the show to prop up other profit centers. Most stations that license ‘Oprah’ use it to lead into their local newscast, for example.

“The question is, what is the logical replacement for ‘Oprah’ today? And there is none,” said the syndication biz analyst. “So what’s ultimately going to happen, is she’s going to say something like, ‘I’m going to do only 20 weeks of original episodes this year, and you’re going to pay me the same amount of money. And these stations are going to bitch and moan, but they’re going to do it.”

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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