Baltimore TV stations brace for impact as Winfrey departs

Rivals see an opening as ratings leader WBAL loses its lucrative lead-in

  • Oprah Winfrey will end her long-running talk show on Wednesday. Her depature from the daytime TV could affect the fortunes of Baltimore's local TV newscasts.
Oprah Winfrey will end her long-running talk show on Wednesday.… (George Burns, Harpo Productions…)
May 23, 2011|By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

When Oprah Winfrey ends her syndicated talk show Wednesday, millions of fans will not be the only ones facing a void.

TV station executives who have lived with what's come to be known as the "Oprah Factor" are buying, selling, hoping and praying to get a piece of the audience of one of the most lucrative franchises in television. Tens of millions of dollars are at stake.

"With Oprah leaving, it's the Wild West in lots of cities like Baltimore," says Bob Papper, Hofstra University professor of media studies. "She provided this monster lead-in to the local news that drove ratings for two hours straight after her show ended in some cities. With that going away, everybody's scrambling for a piece of the action."

Nationally, those already grabbing for a piece of the leftover Oprah pie include Katie Couric, Ellen DeGeneres, Anderson Cooper and even TV judges.

In Baltimore, "Ellen" will replace "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on WBAL-TV starting on Labor Day, with the new syndicated Anderson Cooper show slipping into the station's 2 p.m. slot in front of "Dr. Oz" at 3. WBAL has been the market leader at 4 p.m. for almost a decade thanks to the one-time Baltimore news anchor. ("Oprah" reruns will air in that time slot until the fall.)

Meanwhile, Couric — who just left the anchor desk at CBS News — is in talks with ABC to launch a daily talk show. Expected to be announced soon, the deal could bring the popular former "Today" show host to the lowly rated WMAR at 4 p.m. Her star power could radically alter the local ratings landscape next September.

But no new show will ever match the "Oprah Factor." Winfrey's show had the power not just to win its own time slot, but also to deliver viewers to local newscasts that followed her show in more than 200 cities from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Winfrey's departure after more than two decades of dominance has at least two station managers in Baltimore thinking they could be the new No. 1 in the late afternoon.

"There's a big vacuum left with her going away after all these years," says Bill Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF-TV and WNUV-TV, which are owned and operated by Sinclair Broadcast Group. "And I think there is a strong possibility of us becoming number one in that time period."

Fanshawe has been counterprogramming "Oprah" with court shows "Judge Judy" and "Judge Joe Brown." Next fall, he will run "America's Court with Judge Ross" from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., followed by "Judge Judy" from 5 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. WBFF starts its early news at 5:30.

Jay Newman, general manager of CBS-owned WJZ, also believes he has a shot at being No. 1 at 4 p.m. next fall — in his case, with local news.

Life without "The Oprah Winfrey Show" was so difficult during her heyday that it inspired some TV executives to change the very business model they used in counterprogramming her. Newman was among the first and the most successful to do it with news.

In 2002, Newman's CBS-owned Baltimore station gave up trying to beat Winfrey in favor of finding a more cost-effective way of finishing second — a strategy that allowed it 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," Newman said at the time.

He did just that, launching a 4 p.m. local news program on WJZ in September. 2002. The telecast was initially so successful that it was one of the few programs until then to beat Winfrey in any market.

Newman's station first accomplished that feat in February 2003 with the help of a major snowstorm that kept many area viewers homebound in front of their sets, desperate for weather news. An industry joke making the rounds at the time: Only Mother Nature is big enough to mess with Winfrey.

Newman also believes removing "Oprah" from the Baltimore landscape psychologically makes everyone else's programming look better to viewers — a kind of less-is-more take on life without Oprah.

"When you remove that monster image of Oprah from Baltimore TV, it makes our afternoons look all that much stronger," he says.

Bill Hooper, general manager at Scripps-owned WMAR, says the audience for Winfrey will "spread out," with some viewers sticking with WBAL's "Ellen" and some going to other stations — and some leaving TV altogether if they can't find something they like.

"We're all looking at this as an opportunity," he said. "We're working hard to capture that audience."

Hooper says the Scripps Television Station Group, which owns WMAR, is doing a "feasibility" study to see what will work best with Oprah's old audience, and that study will play a role in determining what his station carries next fall.

But that decision may have already been made if Couric joins ABC to host a one-hour show at either 3 p.m. or 4 p.m.

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