One of the biggest questions in the TV biz has been when, and even if, Oprah Winfrey would give up her daytime syndicated talk show to focus on OWN, her long-delayed Oprah Winfrey Network. Debuting in 70 million homes, it was supposed to launch in place of the Discovery Health Channel as a joint venture between Winfrey and Discovery Communications. But the TV industry has been betting that the daytime diva would extend The Oprah Winfrey Show for at least another year or two because of the huge cash license fees that stations have long paid her.
But people around Oprah are telling me that won’t happen. They say that Discovery Communications chief David Zaslav has demanded that Oprah “move it or lose it” — move her talk show to OWN, or risk losing the Oprah Winfrey Network altogether. I’ve learned that in coming days Winfrey and Discovery will issue a press release announcing OWN’s on-air launch for the start of 2011.
And, in several weeks, Oprah will tell the public that she’s ending her syndicated Chicago-based daytime talk show when her current deal runs out and is moving it to OWN headquarters in L.A. probably as soon as mid-2011. If she doesn’t, it’s only because of fast maneuvering and smooth talking by some Hollywood moguls.
CBS Television Distribution syndicates the show. Disney/ABC’s owned-and-operated stations comprise Oprah’s core station group. And Sony TV execs had been hoping Oprah would deliver any extension of her daytime talker into their hands based on the success they’ve had this season syndicating TheDr. Oz Show, Harpo’s latest daytime talk-show success. “Les Moonves, Bob Iger and Sony will flip out,” one of my insiders says of Oprah’s news. “The only winner is David Zaslav.”
Oprah was supposed to tell Moonves back on October 1 what her plans were. Winfrey’s distribution deal was re-signed in 2004 with King World, which is now part of CBS Television Distribution. It expires in fall 2011, marking the end of Oprah’s 25th season. (News reports say that a clause in her current contract would have let her end the show in 2010 but that she chose last year to extend the show’s run through the contract’s full term.)
“In all honesty, we have not heard she’s made a decision yet whether to continue,” Moonves told me after my news broke. “We think we’re still in the talking stages.”
CBS had a month ago scheduled a face-to-face meeting with Oprah and her posse at her Santa Barbara compound to discuss her plans. But one of the people in her close-knit group passed away. So it was canceled.
CBS is quick to point out that, a few years back, Winfrey renegotiated her distribution deal with CBS TV Distribution. The result is that, when Oprah ends her syndicated talk show and moves it to OWN, “It will be a hit for us but not until 2012. And with the lower syndication fee, it’s not as big a hit as it would have been,” Moonves says.
I’m told that right now Oprah and her advisers are trying to figure out what to do with her minicity in Chicago, and which personnel she can and will move out to L.A. in the next six months.
Also, Discovery will have to renegotiate her OWN deal. Even though it has yet to go on the air, OWN has experienced tremendous turmoil since it was announced, including the entrances and exits of many top female TV executives — three in just the last seven months. Combined with the unprecedented delays, that has come at a cost for Discovery. “It’s so upside down because Discovery has lost millions of dollars since it was announced,” a source tells me. “It was rumored 50/50 that Zaslav would throw in the towel, and her network wouldn’t launch. But Zaslav sees it as a loss leader.”
Last week, Oprah called a confab in L.A. and met with everyone associated with OWN. She also personally heard programming pitches. Only recently has she put in place her two current top lieutenants to run OWN: Christina Norman, who at the start of the year was named CEO. She has 17 years with Viacom Inc.’s MTV cable empire, and stepped down as MTV president. And Lisa Erspamer, who this week was named OWN’s chief creative officer. Erspamer is a 15-year veteran of Harpo Productions, where she has been co-executive producer of Oprah since 2006. But I hear that recently appointed OWN head of programming Jamila Hunter, NBC’s former SVP of alternative entertainment, is out looking for a job after just three months.
The TV industry has seen Oprah claim time and time again over the years that she’s “retiring” from the syndicated show. She said in 1997 that she was planning to retire, then renewed her contract through 2002. In 2002 she said she would call it quits four years later, but in 2004 she re-upped through 2011.
Back then she was still enjoying high ratings and fat cash license fees from TV stations and big popularity. But that was then, and this is now. Her ratings have been in double-digit decline in recent years. And given the financial crisis, which has put TV stations on life support because of the plunge in advertising, Oprah was unlikely to be able to demand another big cash raise to continue her show in syndication — especially in today’s climate, when stations are bartering with syndicators, not paying them. “It had the potential to bankrupt stations. She would have wanted all cash up front. GMs would have told her to go away,” one source explains to me.
Leaving the extraordinary visibility she enjoyed through syndication for a nosebleed cable channel is a huge gamble for Oprah as a TV brand. There’s the possibility that OWN could distribute her new talk show for syndication. But I hear no one is talking about that now.
In the U.S., The Oprah Winfrey Show is viewed by an estimated 7 million people daily (though that audience has fallen by half over the past 10 years) and in 140 countries. It has been estimated that she currently earns about $275 million a year in showbiz income. Long the No. 1–rated daytime talk show, Oprah also made Winfrey the richest African-American woman, worth $2.3B at last count, a worldwide media personality with a powerful media empire around her, a celebrated actress who doubled as a film and television producer, a force in both book and magazine publishing.
But there’s also no question that Oprah is a much more controversial figure now than she’s ever been because of her wealth and fame and politics. “She’s lost her authenticity. Like when she said, ‘It’s good to have your own private jet.’ Or when she shut down the city of Chicago with this season’s ‘flash mob’ for the opening show. Where’s the relatability?” one TV industry source asks.
The word internally at ABC is that TV stations have been cringing at Oprah’s past, present and continuing support for Barack Obama, from her appearance at his Inauguration to her visits to the White House, because it antagonizes half the viewing public who don’t share her politics. Now Oprah will no longer be in their faces: instead she’ll be isolated on cable. The biggest question now in the TV industry is whether it’s “Good Luck!” or “Good Riddance!”