Oh, The Void Oprah Leaves Behind

May 24, 2011
Originally published on May 24, 2011 12:48 pm

Radical changes are taking place on television — specifically, daytime broadcast TV. Soap operas are disappearing. And this week, Oprah Winfrey ends her tremendously successful run in syndication. According to the Nielsen rating service, over 7 million people tuned in to The Oprah Winfrey Show each week.

Nobody really knows what's going to happen to the huge hole Oprah leaves in daytime: not TV stations, not advertisers, and not her fans.

But if you want to ponder daytime offerings, a good place to start is a nail salon, where at least one TV is on all the time. Controlling the remote at Patsy's Nail Bar in Washington, D.C., is receptionist Crystal Jones. She says she puts on what the clients want to watch. "We go from Ellen to Oprah to the Cash Cab," Jones says. (If you've never seen it, Cash Cab is part reality show, part game show. It runs on The Discovery Channel.)

Jones says she is often riveted by some of Winfrey's interviews. Now she has to figure out how to replace her. "There is going to be a big empty space," Jones says. "We'll probably watch movies or those makeover shows on cable, like What Not to Wear."

When The Oprah Winfrey Show began a quarter-century ago, choices were limited. Today viewers will have many more places to look for something else. Discovery hopes they'll switch to Oprah's new cable network. Crystal Jones says she has tried the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), but so far it is not the best fit for a nail salon. One recent Saturday the network was running a marathon of Oprah's series on women in jail. "That's a little bit much," Jones says. "Nobody wants to see that while they're getting their pedicure."

Now, if Crystal Jones is having trouble figuring out what to put on in Patsy's Nail Bar, imagine what it's like for station managers who are about to lose the most popular show in the 4 p.m. time slot. Larry Gerbrandt, an analyst for Media Valuation Partners, says station managers are the ones "most directly on the line because they need to generate a certain level of ratings to deliver to advertisers."

One station manager called the prospect of filling the Oprah void "daunting." There are certainly some contenders being bandied about: Katie Couric, or Anderson Cooper. Or they could move Ellen DeGeneres or Dr. Oz into that spot. "No clear winners have emerged, and certainly nobody has swept the deck," Gerbrandt says.

The other sea change taking place on daytime TV: ABC canceled One Life To Live and All My Children. Fans are not happy. Last week they protested in New York. They even asked Winfrey to pick up the soaps and put them on OWN. Winfrey video-taped a message saying she felt their pain but that even she couldn't save them. Audiences for soap operas have declined, but, more importantly, the broadcast networks can save money by filling those time slots with talk or reality shows.

Even though broadcast TV has the bigger audience numbers, the programming is looking more and more like cable all the time.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Every week, seven million people tuned in to Oprah. Her departure, along with the decline of soap operas, leave a huge hole in daytime television. And as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, nobody seems to know what's going to happen next.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: If you really want to find out about daytime TV, go to a nail salon where at least one TV is on all the time.

(Soundbite of TV show)

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible) it's wonderful to see you two together...

BLAIR: Like Patsy's Nail Bar in Washington, D.C., where receptionist Crystal Jones controls the remote. She says she puts on what the clients want to watch.

Ms. CRYSTAL JONES (Receptionist, Patsy's Nail Bar): We go from "Ellen" to "Oprah" to "The Cash Cab."

BLAIR: "The Cash Cab" is a reality show on Discovery.

Crystal Jones says she's often riveted by some of Oprah Winfrey's interviews. And now she has to figure out how to replace her.

Ms. JONES: There is going to be a big empty space. I've noticed that we'll watch movies or we'll watch those shows where they do the makeovers, "What Not to Wear" and stuff like that instead.

BLAIR: "What Not to Wear" is on cable.

Unlike 25 years ago, when "The Oprah Winfrey Show" began, viewers today will have many more places to look for something else to watch when she's gone. Discovery hopes they'll switch to Oprah's new cable network, OWN. Crystal Jones says she's tried it but so far it's not the best fit for a nail salon. One recent Saturday they were running a marathon of Oprah's women in jail series.

Ms. JONES: That's a little bit much. Nobody wants to see that while they're getting their pedicures.

BLAIR: Now, if Crystal Jones is having trouble figuring out what to put on in Patsy's Nail Salon, imagine what it's like for station managers who are about to lose the most popular show in the 4:00 p.m. timeslot. Larry Gerbrandt is an analyst for Media Valuation Partners.

Mr. LARRY GERBRANDT (Media Valuation Partners): The local station manager is the one most directly on the line because he needs to generate a certain level of ratings to deliver to advertisers.

BLAIR: Daunting is how one station manager put the prospect of filling the Oprah void. There are certainly some contenders being bandied about: Katie Couric, Anderson Cooper. Or they could move Ellen DeGeneres or Dr. Oz into that spot.

Mr. GERBRANDT: No clear winners have emerged and certainly nobody has swept the deck.

BLAIR: The other big sea change taking place on daytime TV: ABC canceled "One Life To Live" and "All My Children."

(Soundbite of TV show, "All My Children")

Ms. SUSAN LUCCI (Actress): (as Erica Kane) The thing I want more than anything is to take my life back, Jack.

BLAIR: Wow. Erica looks great, and fans are not happy about her going away.

(Soundbite of protest)

BLAIR: Last week, they protested in New York. Fans even urged Oprah Winfrey to bring them to OWN. She videotaped a message saying she felt their pain.

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Talk Show Host): I understand. I understand the loyalty. I understand the sense of disappointment. I felt this way when Mary Tyler Moore went off the air, I must say.

BLAIR: But even Oprah can't save the soaps. Their audiences have declined, but more importantly, the broadcast networks can save money by filling those time slots with talk or reality shows.

Even though broadcast TV has the bigger audience numbers, the programming is looking more and more like cable all the time.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.