Oprah’s Exit: Milepost on the Road to the End of Broadcast TV

Last night WABC (ABC’s owned-and-operated station in New York) broke the story that Oprah Winfrey will be ending her broadcast talk show in 2011. She’s decamping to cable, where she will run OWN, a cable network, jointly owned by her and Discovery Communications.

The Oprah Winfrey Show is the most successful syndicated daytime talk show in history. And the news that its days are now numbered sent the TV industry into a frenzy Thursday night.

“Phone keeps ringing on Oprah news,” Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz wrote on Twitter. “Heading for Larry King now. GMA tomorrow. Biggest story since Dave fooled around. Maybe bigger!”

One TV veteran told The Observer on Thursday evening that this was a “major milepost on the road to the end of broadcast television.”

To wit: In recent years, with the advent of the Internet and the growing popularity of cable television, revenue at broadcast TV stations around the country have plummeted.

The Oprah Winfrey Show is the most expensive talk show for stations to syndicate (in New York, WABC pays tens of thousands of dollars a day to air the show at 4 p.m.). But even less expensive options such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show, or Judge Judy, or Dr. Phil can cost a station millions of dollars a year. Back in flush times, stations were more than happy to pay big bucks to lock up their markets with multi-year deals for the exclusive rights to air the most popular talk shows. Paying top dollar was no problem.

But increasingly local broadcast TV stations are struggling to come up with the money needed to pay hefty syndication fees.

In the months and years to come, whenever big programs like The Oprah Winfrey Show sit down to renegotiate their deals with local, broadcast stations they are likely to find a grim market where station-group managers are unable or unwilling to match the fees of yesteryear, let alone increase them.

That leaves two options for the likes of Oprah. Lower your fees. Or pack up shop. The fact that in 2011, Oprah will be calling it quits on broadcast after 25 years in favor of cable television will likely provide future TV historians with a definitive moment to help illustrate what has been (and will continue to be) a long and steady and complex demise for broadcast television, one of the world’s most influential and lucrative mediums.

Oprah’s Exit: Milepost on the Road to the End of Broadcast TV