UPDATE (includes Harpo letter): Both Broadcasting & Cable & Variety, followed by The New York Times and The Washington Post, and every other media outlet just came out today with news headlines reporting what I did first on November 5th: That Oprah Winfrey will end her long-running talk show in 2011. They say she’ll air this on her program Friday. Here was my original scoop: THE END OF ‘OPRAH’ AS WE KNOW HER: Daytime Diva Giving Up Syndie Talk Show & Moving It To Her Cable Network In 2011. Before I recap the news from my story 14 days ago, here is the letter which Harpo Inc President Tim Bennett sent out to affiliates and others today:
Over the past several weeks, my team and I have had conversations with many of you to help address your questions about the future of “The Oprah Winfrey Show”. Of course, the one question we couldn’t answer was the one that only Oprah could. And tomorrow, she will do just that.
But before she speaks to her loyal viewers, we wanted to share her decision first with you our valued partners for more than two decades.
Tomorrow, Oprah will announce live on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” that she has decided to end what is arguably one of the most popular, influential and enduring programs in television history. The sun will set on the “Oprah” show as its 25th season draws to a close on September 9, 2011.
We welcome you to share this news this evening with your colleagues and viewers. As we all know, Oprah’s personal comments about this on tomorrow’s live show will mark an historic television moment that we will
all be talking about for years to come.
We want to thank you for the partnership and friendship we have shared over the years. Your invaluable support has helped us to create the phenomenon of the “Oprah Show” that we’ve all been so proud to be a part of for the last 24 years. My staff and I will be calling all of you directly tonight and tomorrow. We look forward to speaking with you.
And, if you think the last quarter century has been something, then “don’t touch that dial” as together we plan to make history in the next 20 months and beyond.
President, Harpo, Inc.
Let me recap some of my exclusive news from that November 5th story… 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. Because she had to focus on OWN, her long delayed Oprah Winfrey Network in 70 million homes that was supposed to launch in place of the Discovery Health Channel as a joint venture between Winfrey and Discovery Communications. The Industry had 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 which stations have long paid her. But people around Oprah were telling me that first week in November that wouldn’t happen. They said that Discovery Communications chief David Zaslav demanded that Oprah “move it or lose it” — move her talk show to OWN, or risk losing the Oprah Winfrey Network altogether. I learned that Oprah in a few weeks would tell the public that she’s ending her syndicated Chicago-based daytime talk show when her current deal runs out.
And that’s exactly what she’s doing live tomorrow on her show.
As I pointed out, hardest hit by the news will be CBS Television Distribution which syndicates the show. In fact, my November 5th news caught CBS honcho Les Moonves by surprise. He was counting on a 1- or 2-year renewal of The Oprah Winfrey Show. I understand that Oprah was supposed to tell CBS Inc chief Les Moonves back on October 1st what her plans were. “In all honesty, we have not heard she’s made a decision yet whether to continue,” he told me that morning of November 5th. “We think we’re still in the talking stages.” But CBS had scheduled a face-to-face meeting in October with Oprah and her personal and professional posse at her Santa Barbara compound to discuss her plans. But her bodyguard passed away. So it was canceled, I’d learned.
Of course, CBS tried put the best face on a bad situation that day — pointing out that, a few years back, Winfrey re-negotiated her distribution deal with CBS TV Distribution so it “gets a lesser fee now”. The result is that, when Oprah stops her syndicated talk show, a CBS insider told me, “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.”
Still, Moonves had seen Oprah claim time and time again over the years that she’s “retiring” from the syndicated show and didn’t believe she’d quit a pulpit that gives her such a huge amount of influence, and a pulpuit with such a hefty paycheck. I knew how persuasive Les and his people can be. So I wondered if he’d succeed. Alas, it was not be.
Also hit will be ABC’s owned-and-operated stations which make up Oprah‘s core station group. Though one insider told me that Disney topper Bob Iger privately was expressing relief after my story that Oprah’s leaving would free up badly needed affiliates cash. Also hit are Sony TV execs who’d been hoping Oprah would deliver any extension of her daytime talker into their hands based on the success they’ve had this season syndicating Dr Oz, Harpo’s latest daytime talk show star, and their just announced next star from Oprah’s star stable, interior designer Nate Berkus). “Les Moonves, Bob Iger, and Sony will flip out,” one of my insiders warned about Oprah’s news. “The only winner is David Zaslav.”
As of November 5th, my reporting showed Oprah’s decision was so definitive that she and her advisers were already trying to figure out what to do with her mini-city in Chicago, and which personnel she can and will move out to LA in the next six months. In late October, Oprah called a confab in Los Angeles and met with everyone associated with OWN. She also personally heard programming pitches.
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 which marks the end of Oprah’s 25th season. (News reports said a clause existed in her current contract that 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.)
She said in 1997 that she was planning to retire, then renewed her contract through 2002. Then in 2002 she said she would call it quits in 2006, 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 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. When Oprah leaves syndication, it will open up time slots and free up station cash not just for syndication’s existing stars (which now include Harpo-started Dr Phil, Rachael Ray and Dr Oz) but also new ones.
Leaving the extraordinary visibility she enjoyed through syndication is a huge gamble for Oprah as a TV brand. My understanding is that OWN will air a new talk show from her. But Oprah is viewed by an estimated 7 million people a day (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 into 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 before 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?” The word internally at ABC is that TV stations have been cringing at Oprah’s past and present and continuing support for Barack Obama, from her appearance at his inauguration (see photo) 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!”
As for OWN, only very recently has she put in place her two current top lieutenants to run it: Christina Norman, who at the start of the year was named CEO after spending 17 years with Viacom Inc’s MTV cable empire before stepping down as MTV president. And Lisa Erspamer who this week was named OWN’s Chief Creative Officer and is a 15-year veteran of Harpo Productions where she served as co-executive producer of Oprah since 2006. 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 7 months. (And 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 3 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.” Now, finally, just as he demanded, Oprah is freeing herself to start her namesake cable channel.