The Oprah Factor

The queen of daytime talk shows reinvents herself much to the ratings-rich delight of her stations.

November 12, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Oprah Winfrey - queen of daytime talk and mistress of transformation - has reinvented herself again.

Since her nationally syndicated show began in 1986, her incarnations have included girl wonder of trashy daytime talk, reborn high-road penitent, body-obsessed diet devotee, New Age seeker of spiritual fulfillment and student of literature with the world's largest literary salon meeting in her electronic living room.

Now comes a new maturity, with less of the seeker and more of the finder - Winfrey as Fairy Godmother of the Good Life. Maybe she's only resting before getting back on her quest toward personal fulfillment, but a less emotionally needy Winfrey seems more focused on transforming the lives of others rather than her own in the enchanted television palace of her talk show.

This latest act of on-screen reinvention has resulted in a revitalized program that emphasizes the guests as much or more than Winfrey. And that makes for an improved program that is reshaping bottom lines at television stations nationwide, particularly when it comes to local news operations such as those in Baltimore, home to one of her most loyal fan bases.

Major market stations carrying The Oprah Winfrey Show from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays are riding her coattails to multimillion-dollar increases in ad revenues for their afternoon talk shows and early evening newscasts this fall. Meanwhile, those that don't have Oprah are scrambling to find new ways to make a buck while eating her dust.

"We're all sitting here smiling and saying, `She's done it again - she's reinvented herself,'" said Bill Fine, president and general manager of WBAL (Channel 11).

"Not to take anything away from the news department, but the kind of success Oprah is having for us at 4 o'clock with her show can be the difference between first or second at 5 [o'clock] with your local news. To me, that's seismic. That's a big home run she's hitting this fall for stations like ours," Fine added.

And it's not just Baltimore. Stations from coast to coast are enjoying the bounty.

"Let me put it this way, Oprah Winfrey is making us all look good these days," said Emerson Coleman, vice president for programming at the Hearst-Argyle station group that includes WBAL and 26 other television stations. The company is one of Winfrey's oldest and most important partners, carrying her syndicated talk show on 16 of its stations ranging from WCVB in Boston to KCRA in Sacramento.

On the other hand, life without The Oprah Winfrey Show can be so difficult that it has inspired television executives to change the very business model they use in counter-programming her, says Jay Newman, vice president and general manager of WJZ (Channel 13). They have given up trying to beat Winfrey in favor of finding a more cost-effective way of finishing second - a strategy that allows them to lose in the ratings but still make money.

"Rather than paying through the nose and pretending the next syndicated game show or talk show that you buy is going to be the one that beats her, it makes far more business sense to get out of the entertainment genre altogether and do a 4 o'clock newscast produced by your own news department," said Newman.

He did just that, launching a 4 p.m. local news program on WJZ last fall. The telecast was initially so successful that it was one of the few programs in the last 17 years to beat Winfrey in any market during a sweeps ratings period. Newman's station, which has been locked in recent years in a back-and-forth ratings battle with WBAL, accomplished that feat in February with the help of a major snowstorm that kept many area viewers homebound in front of their sets desperate for news.

But this fall, with Winfrey's rebirth and her audience share rising from 14 percent to more than 20 percent of the Baltimore audience, it's another matter.

"Oprah definitely does influence news ratings," Newman says. "If she's doing a 20 share, even a station as strong in image and tune-in as WJZ is probably not going to be No. 1 with its 5 o'clock news."

Major power player

Baltimore, the nation's 23rd largest market, offers one of the clearest snapshots of what has been called the "Oprah Factor," the power of her show not just to win its own time period, but also to deliver viewers to local newscasts that follow her show in 213 cities coast to coast. Her coattails are so long that she can affect station rankings city-by-city all the way from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. - two hours after she has gone off the air.

Indeed, during a long stretch in the 1990s when ABC News with Peter Jennings was No. 1 among national newscasts at 6:30 p.m., much of the credit for that dominance was given to the fact that Winfrey's show was mostly carried on ABC-owned or affiliated stations in the nation's largest cities. Competitors saw Jennings and ABC News getting a running start with all the viewers attracted by Winfrey at 4.

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