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Daytime TV’s Empty Throne After ‘Oprah’

Brian Stelter|The New York Times
Monday, 11 Jun 2012 | 11:22 AM ET

Predictable. For years, that is what the 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. television ratings reports were like in New York City and dozens of other cities.

Prakash Singh | AFP | Getty Images

Whatever station had “The Oprah Winfrey Show” would win at 4, the most common time for the daytime talk show. And it would win at 5, too, because much of Ms. Winfrey’s audience would stick around for the local news.

But in the year since Ms. Winfrey’s show ended, ratings reports have been rattled, demonstrating that audiences disperse when their favorite shows do the same — a classic case of media fragmentation.

In New York, for instance, WABC’s replacement for Ms. Winfrey’s show, an hour of local news at 4 p.m., has averaged about half as many viewers as the talk show did. The decline has brought down the 5 p.m. hour as well; in May, WABC’s long winning streak at that hour was broken by WCBS.

“We started our 5 o’clock newscasts here in New York in 1982, and this is the first time we are No. 1,” said Peter Dunn, the president and general manager of WCBS.

The trend has shown up in local ratings from Philadelphia to San Francisco. When the curtain fell on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” the television marketplace got a bit smaller. Of course, Ms. Winfrey’s world did, too; the ratings for her new cable network, OWN, have been lower than almost anyone expected.

“She was a phenomenon, I assume a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Dave Davis, WABC’s president and general manager.

At her peak, in the early 1990s, Ms. Winfrey drew 12 million to 13 million viewers on an average weekday. By the time she signed off in May 2011, she was averaging closer to six million. But that still made her show by far the most popular of its kind.

Some of her fans, it appears, have stopped watching live television at her former time of day. Instead, they are using digital video recorders or surfing social networks, said Steve Ridge of Frank N. Magid Associates, a consulting firm for local stations, who described it as a “flattening of the time period.”

Other viewers have scattered across the dial. The talk shows “The Dr. Oz Show,” “Dr. Phil” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” all picked up some in the key demographic of women ages 25 to 54, but none have picked up enough to be crowned the new king or queen of daytime. “Dr. Oz,” which took over more of Ms. Winfrey’s time slots than any other syndicated talk show, had a 1.5 rating in that demographic this season, up from a 1.3 the season before. “Oprah” had a 3.1 rating in its last season.

In many local markets, the “Oprah” time slots were filled not with talk, but with local news, continuing a cost-effective expansion of news that has been happening for several years in many cities. But ratings declines, in many cases, have been precipitous there, too.

In Chicago, where Ms. Winfrey’s show was produced, the station that carried it at 9 a.m., the ABC affiliate WLS, put on a local talk show called “Windy City Live” in its place. It had an average of 134,000 viewers last month, down from 267,000 in Ms. Winfrey’s final month in 2011. In Baltimore, where the NBC affiliate WBAL was a longtime ratings leader, the loss of “Oprah” has helped the CBS station WJZ become No. 1 at 5 p.m. WJZ, coincidentally, is the station where Ms. Winfrey hosted a talk show for the first time.

“The cumulative impact of the Oprah departure is that it has shrunk the margin of separation for traditional news leaders, and provided an opportunity for traction by No. 2 and No. 3 stations,” Mr. Ridge said.

To put it another way, when old habits are disrupted, new habits are formed. It is hard to measure all the effects, but some station executives have lamented the loss of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” as a promotional tool. After all, ads during “Oprah” were a great way to promote what was coming up on a station.

But “Oprah” was also exceedingly expensive for stations. For WABC, ad revenue for the 4 p.m. hour sometimes barely covered the license fee for the show, Mr. Davis said. Now, with a lower-rated local newscast, the station makes a profit at that hour, he said. But there are fewer viewers over all.

Ripple effects are evident an hour later. In May 2010, WABC’s 5 p.m. newscast had about 422,000 viewers a day, 100,000 more than WCBS’s. The following May, as Ms. Winfrey wrapped up her 25-year-old show, WABC had 449,000 viewers at 5 p.m. But this May, without the help from Ms. Winfrey, WABC had 329,000 viewers at 5 p.m., about 25,000 fewer than WCBS.

The station still beats WCBS at 5 p.m. among 25- to 54-year-olds. But WCBS has clearly been a beneficiary; its 4 p.m. show, “Judge Judy,” has apparently picked up some of Ms. Winfrey’s former viewers, and so has its 5 p.m. newscast.

“We already had some momentum in our 5 o’clock hour when Oprah was on,” Mr. Dunn said. “When Oprah left, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, I guess.”

He and David Friend, the news director at WCBS, also credited investments in news-gathering, like an S.U.V. that can broadcast live video that the station calls a “Mobile Weather Lab.”

A bevy of syndicated talk shows will premiere in the fall, all with hopes of shoring up afternoon time slots that have been disrupted by Ms. Winfrey’s departure. Of the new entrants, Katie Couric’s show is the one most frequently compared to Ms. Winfrey’s. It will be televised by WABC at 3 p.m., and Mr. Davis said he thinks that it will “help our news and information flow, from 3 to 4 to 5.”

But without Ms. Winfrey on broadcast television, the bar will be lower than it used to be.

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