Page M – Oprah picked the right time to exit broadcast TV 11/24/2009

Oprah Winfrey: You go, girl — to cable!


NEW YORK, Nov. 24, 2009 — Ratings for broadcast television are dropping.

Ratings for cable television are rising.

In some ways, the two are neck and neck – at least as far as the average person is concerned.  NBC, owner of a stable of cable networks and one broadcast network, is one company that has adopted this line of thinking, that broadcast and cable are indistinguishable from one another, just channels lined up on a cable box through which people graze.

Next year, broadcast and cable channels will seem even more interchangeable when one of the biggest stars associated with the former takes up residence on the latter (and exits the former a year later).

In the long run, it likely won’t matter much to Oprah Winfrey’s fans that she’s giving up her afternoon daytime show on local TV stations in order to establish some new presence for herself on her own cable TV network – called, of course, the Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN, which she will own, at least partially, with Discovery.

Her fans, the people who read the books she recommends and buy the products she raves about, will find her.  She won’t be hiding.  She’ll be on television, and the people who run the Discovery cable networks will pay for so much promotion that there won’t be a potential viewer in the United States who won’t know where to find Oprah on cable.

Oprah might have continued for several more years, maybe even many years, on local TV, but like everything else in the media world, the business in that sector is changing, has been changing for a while, and will continue changing for the foreseeable future.   The biggest change: With ad revenue and viewership shrinking on local TV, the fees the stations would agree to pay for “The Oprah Winfrey Show” are also decreasing.

It’s not that she’s greedy, but Oprah has a studio to run – Harpo – and payrolls to meet.  Sticking to the same business plan to which she has adhered for more than 20 years in the face of diminishing returns is no way to run a business, especially one seeking to maintain a position of leadership in a sphere as dynamic as the television business.

When you look at it that way, Oprah’s decision to shake things up is long overdue.  Her talk show has been around since the era of “The Cosby Show” and hasn’t changed much since then except in the number of people watching it, which happens to be a lot fewer today.  Moreover, her business – the portion of it that lies outside the sale and production of her talk show – has changed in some ways too.  She’s producing fewer TV movies, but has built a reputation for herself as a discoverer and nurturer of new talent – Rachael Ray, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz.

Now she’s preparing to build her own network filled, presumably, with shows and personalities she develops.  It was suggested in a column I read somewhere the other day that Oprah Winfrey is accepting some sort of demotion in her status in show business by agreeing to relinquish her syndicated talk show in favor of running her own cable channel.  The thesis of that column was preposterous.  Oprah is not consigning herself to some sort of minor league of TV.  Instead, she is entering the major leagues of TV moguldom.  And it is high time she did so.

Contact Adam Buckman:


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