Oprah’s Timing “Is Clearly Right,” Opines Prof. Jeff McCall ’76

Originally posted: May 21, 2011

DePauw University Prof. Jeff McCall

Oprah Winfrey’s 25-year run as the queen of daytime talk has been quite amazing. Her “only in America” story has endeared her to fans and made her a force in the cultural arena, not to mention making her a billionaire.

She wraps up her highly rated show this month (reruns will go into September), and the time is clearly right. It’s been a great run, but the Oprah touch is not as magical as it once was, with ratings wobbling.

Oprah entered the daytime television world at an opportune time, when the lineup included soaps and goofy discussion shows such as Donahue. Oprah grew up in the South and broadcast from the Midwest, which surely helped her understand a wide range of viewers. She understood the ups and downs of real life, having battled her way out of poverty with an industrious, can-do approach.

Oprah was sociable, empathetic, and just as important, not perfect. These traits helped her reach viewers across all demographic and socioeconomic boundaries. Viewers liked Oprah because they knew her emotions were real.

Oprah’s program had a solid balance of serious and fun topics. She took on challenging social issues with sophistication. Local television affiliates often used the Oprah show as a lead-in to late afternoon newscasts, so it was in their interest to promote Oprah heavily.

Oprah’s ratings power made her show the place to be for authors, new products, public affairs leaders and flawed celebrities. The Oprah “brand” was marketed beyond television into magazines, satellite radio, motion pictures and the philanthropic world. She spun off talkers, including Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and Nate Berkus.

But even the most popular television shows and personalities eventually rust, and Oprah is no exception. Her ratings have slipped by about a third in the last five years, with even Judge Judy providing competition. It is likely some conservative and politically independent viewers cooled on her in 2008 when she became a visible political partisan with her active campaigning for then-candidate Barack Obama.

Several PR hits have hurt the Oprah image. There has been an abuse scandal at the girls’ school she founded in South Africa. Oprah helped promote books by James Frey and Herman Rosenblatt, both of which later turned out to have serious credibility problems. Occasional Oprah guest, pediatrician Mel Levine, became the subject of abuse charges and recently committed suicide.

Oprah’s new cable network, OWN, premiered earlier this year, more than a year behind the target launch date. It has sputtered with disappointing ratings and un-Oprah-like programming.

The lineup features unusual programs that are unlikely to pull the kinds of broad demos that Oprah herself gathered. One series will feature Sarah Ferguson as the Duchess of York “struggles to rebuild her life.” Yawn. “Becoming Chaz” is a program about the grown child of Sonny and Cher. Huh? Lisa Ling is doing reports about a girl who lived in a cage. The show about the Judds would have been hot about 20 years ago.

Oprah’s departure leaves a void, and programmers are scrambling to find a replacement personality. Anderson Cooper has a talk show ready to debut this fall, but let’s face it, audiences already know him, and his ratings on CNN are dreadful. It will be hard for him to be a somber newsman on CNN and a do a light, talkie show in the daytime.

Katie Couric appears headed to a daytime talk show, but it will be fall 2012 before it gets going. Ellen DeGeneres’ current show could move into Oprah’s time slot, but her zaniness might not work as well with Oprah viewers who are used to serious conversation. Rachael Ray is successful, she’s still largely identified with cooking, and she would have to expand her subject range.

A number of current Oprah affiliates are simply planning to start local newscasts earlier. They know, like Oprah’s fans, that Oprah can’t be replaced.

Jeff McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, and author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.” Contact him at jeffmccall@depauw.edu.

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