Please remain calm: No need to panic over Oprah

December 4, 2009

Are some people really trying to make a federal case out of Oprah Winfrey's retirement? Believe it or not, the subject came up this week at a hearing of the Federal Trade Commission in Washington.

During a two-day workshop on the future of the news media (titled "How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?"), speculation on how the demise of Oprah's Chicago-based talk show in 2011 would impact television stations around the country was among topics discussed. In markets outside of Chicago, her show has long been the late-afternoon engine that powers up ratings for local newscasts.

"Oprah has been a major audience destination for many television stations for 24 years, driven by her skills and assisted by local television stations that aggregated viewers in her behalf," veteran broadcaster Fred Young, retired senior vice president of news for Hearst Television, told the FTC panel.‚ Added Young:

"Nonetheless, Oprah stations will survive! News programs or new syndicated products will take over her time slot.These days I am often offended by the agenda-driven stories about broadcaster panic tied to Oprah's departure.You can take this to the bank: If local broadcasters can cover hurricanes, tornados and ice storms, government misdeeds and political campaigns, the tragedies of 9/11 and Fort Hood, health care reform and swine flu epidemics, Super Bowls and steroid scandals -- we can deal with Oprah's retirement. We can assume some of the syndication monies may be redirected to fresh forms of local news programming. Someone out there is sitting on the next great idea."

Here in Oprah's home market, where her show continues to dominate the ratings at 9 a.m. and 11:05 p.m. each day, there's no sign of panic at her flagship station. "We have two years to figure out what we want to do, and I'm not going to rush that decision," Emily Barr, president and general manager of ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7 told Lewis Lazare. "We'll be looking at all kinds of options."

As the whole world now knows, Oprah is calling it quits here and moving to Los Angeles to focus on the Oprah Winfrey Network on cable. But that doesn't mean she'll be hosting her daily talk show. "Her show as you know it is not coming to OWN," network CEO Christina Norman told USA Today. "She's going to have a significant presence on this network. Pieces of that show we're going to want to find ways to retain, but I don't think the format exists in anyone's mind right now."

Elsewhere on the media beat:

  • A year and a half after he rejected a contract renewal at sports/talk WSCR-AM (670) and ended his 16-year run at the CBS station, Mike North was welcomed back to the same company -- but in an even bigger role. The irony of joining CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2 as host of "Monsters and Money in the Morning" (with Dan Jiggetts, Terry Savage and Mike Hegedus) isn't lost on North: "I think it's great business sense on both sides," he said Thursday. "Our show will try its damnedest to get CBS to the No. 1 spot in the morning. I don't go anywhere to lose or to fail. There's a lot of people making money at places I helped start. And you only get one chance to play Broadway." Credit agent Steve Mandell with negotiating the deal for North and Jiggetts.
  • With Jay Leno wrecking WMAQ-Channel 5's prime time numbers and plunging its 10 p.m. newscast into third place, it's hard to imagine things getting worse for the NBC-owned station. But the $30 billion sale of NBC Universal to Comcast Corp., formally announced Thursday, may do just that. Phil Rosenthal reports that federal regulators might force Comcast to put Channel 5 (and other NBC-owned stations) up for sale to comply with public interest requirements. Naturally, Comcast begs to differ: "We intend to preserve and enrich the output of local news, local public affairs, and other public interest programming on NBC 0&0 [owned and operated] stations," the company said. NBC Universal also owns Telemundo Spanish-language station WSNS-Channel 44 here.
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