Replacing Oprah and the Shift to Cable

Oprah Winfrey
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Oprah Winfrey

The curtain has fallen on Oprah's final show and she's leaving a massive void in daytime television.

Winfrey dazzled viewers and Nielsen boxes with the highest ratings a syndicated talk show ever drew — an average of seven million viewers this spring, even after more than two decades on the air.

Her finale is expected to draw the highest ratings of any syndicated show, and CBS asked for $1 million per thirty second-spot in her final show, and may have still left money on the table.

Now Oprah's absence will deal a blow across the broadcast networks — to CBS which distributed the syndicated show, as well as airing it on its affiliates, along with ABC , Fox and NBC. And it wasn't just a place filler — Oprah's reliable ratings played a key role drawing viewers into local newscasts.

What now? Many networks will simply expand their newscasts by an hour. Others will shuffle around other syndicated hits — "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and Dr. Oz, a spin-off of Oprah. And hopes are high for some new players in the syndication market. Time Warner's Telepictures, which is produces "Ellen" is launching a new Anderson Cooper-anchored talk show this fall. And ABC is in talks with Katie Couric to created a syndicated talk show. But these newcomers face a disadvantage — they both come from serious news backgrounds, which may be off-putting to the broad audience Oprah drew with her mainstream, never-political approach.

Bottom line: Oprah is irreplaceable. Especially when it comes to her marketing power, the so-called "Oprah Effect." Her endorsements turned books into bestsellers, giving the publishing business a much-needed boost. And she could transform the fate of a small business with a single mention of a product on her show.

And Oprah's move from broadcast to cable marks a sea change in the industry. She joins broadcast names Martha Stewart and Conan O'Brien who also moved to cable, following the viewer trend. Viewers of basic cable now surpass the combined total of the broadcast networks, and advertisers continue to shift more dollars into cable. Last year marketers spent nearly 10 percent more on cable ads than they spent in 2009, while network TV ad spending grew only 5 percent in the same period.

The challenge for Oprah: viewership is fragmented across dozens of major cable channels — hundreds in total. Can she draw her core viewers on this new platform?

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