“I love this show. This show has been my life,” she told viewers. “And I love it enough to know when it’s time to say good-bye. Twenty-five years feels right in my bones and it feels right in my spirit. It’s the perfect number—the exact right time. So I hope that you will take this 18-month ride with me right through to the final show.”
Winfrey, the queen of daytime talk, will refocus her efforts on cable, where a new network, a joint venture with Discovery Networks, is now set to launch in January 2011, after several delays. “After production wraps on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Winfrey plans to appear and participate in new programming for OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, a 24-hour cable network that reflects her vision, values and interests,” her company said in a statement Friday.
Winfrey, 55, is not expected to host a talk show for that network, but is developing several lifestyle programs and will appear on a somewhat regular basis. But Winfrey is giving up a major platform on syndicated television and analysts say it’s highly unlikely she’ll match her current audience of more than 7 million viewers, up slightly this season thanks to high-profile interviews with Sarah Palin, Whitney Houston and others.
“I don’t think any talk show will have the influence that she had,” says Bill Carroll, an analyst at Katz TV Group, which advises local stations. “Her talk show happened in a different time, in a different media landscape.”
Winfrey has uniquely been able to turn endorsements from her Oprah’s Book Club into instant bestsellers, and provide a huge platform for authors to hawk their books.
“What a loss for publishing,” says Carol Fitzgerald, president of BookReporter.com, a popular website for book discussions. “Oprah brings attention to books and authors with passion and focus. Whether or not readers agreed with her choices for her book club, she always drove sales and got people into stores or online to buy.” And while other hosts promote gadgets, when “she does her favorite things, they fly off the shelves,” Carol says. “I don’t think anyone on broadcast or cable has that kind of appeal.”
Added Discovery CEO David Zaslav: “There is no bigger brand in media than Oprah Winfrey. She has changed the broadcast landscape and how people consume television.”
On Friday’s show, Winfrey talked about being nervous when the program began in 1986, and thanked audiences who had invited her into their homes over the past two decades.
“I certainly never could have imagined the yellow brick road of blessings that would have led me to this moment,” she said.
Winfrey said she and her staff were going to brainstorm ideas for the final season of her show and she hoped viewers would take “this 18-month ride with me. We are going to knock your socks off,” she said. “The countdown to the end of The Oprah Winfrey Show starts now.”
The countdown also starts for CBS, which has made hundreds of millions of dollars distributing her show to more than 200 local stations.
And for ABC, which depends on Winfrey for sturdy ratings that in many markets lead into crucial evening newscasts. In nine of the top 10 cities, ABC-owned or affiliated stations carry Winfrey’s show, so its loss could hurt both local newscasts that follow it and ABC’s World News, which Diane Sawyer is joining at year’s end.
Carroll speculates that ABC may decide to expand its local newscasts to replace Winfrey’s show, which airs live in Chicago each morning but is delayed in most other cities.
Winfrey has vowed to end her show twice before. But there’s no reason to doubt her now: Last week, she moved co-executive producer Lisa Erspamer to Los Angeles as chief creative officer of OWN, a signal that Winfrey would play a more direct role.
Discovery has been scarce on details of Oprah’s involvemement in OWN. But Lawrence Kirschbaum, former CEO of Warner Books, says Winfrey’s move to cable “could actually be a boon for books. She won’t have just one show but an entire network. Sure, her audience will be smaller, but it will be more intense and passionate about books,” Kirschbaum says. “In a way, this could be a blessing for publishing.”
After reporting stints in Baltimore and Nashville, Winfrey, hosted AM Chicago starting in 1984, which was rebranded two years later and began airing nationally. Its audience is nearly twice as large as the top competing talk shows. And Winfrey, while producing movies, starting a successful magazine with Hearst and building Harpo Productions, has spread her influence throughout daytime, spinning off shows starring frequent guests Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Ray and decorator Nate Berkus, who’s developing a show planned for fall.
Contributing: Bob Minzesheimer