Losing TV Show Won't Diminish Oprah's Power

Just when we thought nothing could distract from the reintroduction of the supernova that is Sarah Palin, Oprah Winfrey announced this week that she would be ending her long-running daytime talk show, just days after an interview with Palin led the show to its best ratings in two years. Oprah will end her wildly popular show in 2011, exactly 25 years after it began. In that quarter century, Oprah has parlayed her show into an empire, and made her name synonymous with influence, ubiquity, and gob-smacking wealth. So, the legions of Oprah devotees are probably asking themselves, "What now?" (Article continued below...)

So far, Oprah's not saying exactly, except that she will be focusing on a new cable venture, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). I find it hard to believe that someone as naturally telegenic and warm as Oprah will shrink completely from working in front of the camera; she'll likely just come up with a way to bring her talents to bear in a new show on her network. Worry not, Oprah dittoheads. You won't have to wander aimlessly through shelves packed with unfamiliar titles at the bookstore, nor will you have to figure out your own favorite things. The Oprah you love, the tastemaker of your lives, will probably still be around, in some form or another.

The risk here is not for Oprah's viewership, the mom-and-pop shops that hope for a mention of their products, or even the TV affiliates who will lose her draw. They'll find a new way to fill the hole, like they always do, and Tyra Banks and Wendy Williams both have a product, even if they have a different vibe and less cachet than the woman who laid the tracks ahead of them. The risk, of course, is for Oprah herself.

Obviously she's thought all this through; Oprah wouldn't be where she is if she weren't shrewd about such things. And this is not her first dabble into the world of cable television. Oprah cofounded the Oxygen Network in 1998 and contributed Oprah After the Show, a half-hour of audience interaction that she turned into a show in lieu of allowing the network to broadcast repeats of her regular program. In 2007 NBC Universal bought Oxygen, Oprah's share included, and After the Show went with it. But Oprah's image was so intertwined with the Oxygen brand early on, some people are under the impression that such seedy shows as Bad Girls Club,Tori & Dean: Inn Love,and The Naughty Kitchen are still somehow affiliated with Oprah.

Oprah's power lies in her uplifting, generous, female-centric brand, which is easy enough to distill from a show into a magazine, but much more difficult to spread across a 24-hour cable channel, a ravenous beast that can never be satiated. Almost every ad-supported network has a stable of trash that people actually watch, which mitigates the financial damage caused by the great, little shows that no one watches. And Oprah can't do trash. She can't even really do conflict, as evidenced from her attempt at non–talk television, Oprah's Big Give. The concept—a sort of philanthropic The Apprentice—is one that probably sounded good on paper, but in execution it didn't quite feel right. Contestants who had just scrambled to give money to people in need were eliminated if their generosity wasn't creative enough … or something. It was an attempt to split the difference between the feel-good Oprah brand and the treachery of reality competition. It failed, and was canceled after one eight-episode season.

So far, the OWN strategy seems to be to branch off the talk show. The network has announced shows featuring Dr. Laura Berman, Lisa Ling, and Peter Walsh, all frequent Oprah guests who will be familiar and welcome to her audience. Assuming those are hourlongs, she's got three down and 21 to go. If she approaches this new challenge with the same gusto as she has the rest of her career, OWN can be a potential windfall for Oprah, giving her audience new reasons to jump on the couch that have nothing to do with a Tom Cruise impression.