Oprah to wrap up the daytime conversation
Lisa de Moraes
Oprah Winfrey, one of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry, will announce Friday that her iconic daytime talk show will wrap at the end of its 25th season.
But don't panic -- her final appearance as host of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" is nearly two years away. And it's possible she'll move the whole shebang to the cable network she's setting up, called, naturally, the Oprah Winfrey Network.
"The sun will set on the 'Oprah' show as its 25th season draws to a close on September 9, 2011," Winfrey's Harpo Productions said in an e-mail to TV station executives Thursday evening.
"As we all know, Oprah's personal comments about this on tomorrow's live show will mark a historic television moment that we will all be talking about for years to come."
Indeed, the advance notice could turn Friday's show into her most watched ever. Not coincidentally, the TV industry is amid the important November ratings derby, which will be used to set ad rates for shows over the next several months.
Although Winfrey's show, like many in syndication, has slid in the ratings over the past few years, this season she's enjoyed a noticeable uptick, thanks to high-profile "gets" that have included the first TV interview with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to launch her book tour. That interview was seen by more than 10 million viewers -- Winfrey's biggest audience since November 2007.
Winfrey also snagged blockbuster interviews such as Mackenzie Phillips revealing she had sex with her father, pop singer John Phillips, for years; the first comeback-album interview with Whitney Houston; and a much-ballyhooed reunion of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield.
This season of her show opened in a loud way when she lured more than 20,000 fans to Chicago's Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue for a block party with the Black Eyed Peas.
Word of Winfrey's decision ends months of rampant speculation as to whether she would continue with the five-days-a-week show while trying to finally launch OWN, her long-stalled cable network, in partnership with Silver Spring-based Discovery Communications.
Earlier this month, reports surfaced that Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav was pressuring Winfrey to move her talk show to OWN. In response to those reports, Harpo issued a statement insisting "she had not made a decision yet," but one will be made by the end of the year.
When Zaslav announced the joint-venture partnership with Winfrey, he said OWN would launch in the second half of '09.
It remains unclear whether Winfrey will launch a talk show for the channel once her syndicated show wraps. Recently, OWN hired one of Winfrey's most trusted executives, 15-year Harpo veteran Lisa Erspamer, as its new chief creative officer, which raised questions as to whether Winfrey was planning to stop doing her show, which is based in Chicago, and move to Los Angeles.
The news that Winfrey was ending her show came as a shock to Washington's WJLA (Channel 7), which has aired it at 4 p.m., preceding its first afternoon newscast, for almost 20 years.
"The fact of the matter is she's the gold standard for news lead-ins," said Bill Lord, ABC7's station manager. "She's a huge force for ratings."
However, "Oprah's" local audience has steadily diminished and the program hasn't been quite as formidable a draw as it used to be. On some days, it finishes behind the syndicated "Judge Judy" on WTTG (Channel 5) and the 4 p.m. newscast on WRC (Channel 4).
Lord wasn't sure how losing the show would affect his station, or what program might replace it. "It's still a great show," he said, "but this is not as devastating financially as it might have been 10 years ago."
"Oprah" began airing locally on WUSA (Channel 9) in 1986, but moved to WJLA in 1990, where it has been ever since. At one point, it was drawing twice as many viewers as its closest competition.
"We have the greatest respect for Oprah and wish her nothing but the best in her future endeavors," CBS Television Distribution said Thursday in a statement. That CBS division distributes "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to TV stations around the country.
Winfrey started her broadcasting career as a teenager in Nashville, reading the news on local TV. In 1976 she moved to Baltimore to anchor newscasts at WJZ before becoming host of the station's local talk show "People Are Talking."
In 1984, she went to Chicago to host the morning talk show "A.M. Chicago." It was from this show that "The Oprah Winfrey Show" sprang a year later. The next year, the show was launched in syndication, where it became one of the most successful programs in TV history, eventually turning Winfrey into a billionaire running her own media empire.
Staff writer Paul Farhi contributed to this report.