Oprah Winfrey, the monarch of daytime television, airs her final episode next week.
For 25 years, Winfrey, high priestess of the self-empowerment movement, has ruled the daytime airwaves by inviting celebrities and statesmen to her couch for friendly tete-a-tetes watched by millions of loyal followers.
Already, members of TV’s royalty are plotting to seize Winfrey’s crown. Katie Couric, who stepped down Thursday from the “CBS Evening News,” is marshaling an insurgency. Anderson Cooper of CNN has staked a beachhead with a deal for a daytime talk show this fall.
Judith Sheindlin – aka “Judge Judy” – has built her own fortress with more than 6 million daily viewers. Ellen DeGeneres is carving out her niche as the queen of nice.
There’s even an opening for a new jester of daytime as Regis Philbin – who has logged more hours in front of the camera than any player in the realm and turns 80 in August – exits “Live With Regis and Kelly” later this year.
It could be years before any of the claimants emerge as Oprah’s rightful heir – if at all.
Daytime television may never again give birth to a personality like Winfrey. With hundreds of cable channels and thousands of Internet sites vying for people’s time, it is becoming ever harder for an individual to command a common audience of shared interests and empathy.
“It’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, for someone to be as dominant as Oprah has been,” says Bill Carroll, director of programming for Katz Media, which sells advertising on radio and televison.
“When she came on the air, most cities had only two or three TV stations and cable penetration was relatively low. Many channels didn’t exist.”
In another sign of the times, soap operas – once the chief form of escapism from the tedium of household chores for countless women – are nearly washed up.
When ABC’s “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” end their runs next season, only four network soaps will remain on the air, compared with nearly a dozen a decade ago.
At its peak in 1981, more than 14 million people watched “General Hospital” on ABC. Now, fewer than 3 million tune in daily.
“There is a transition going on in daytime television, and it is a generational change,” says Ken Werner, president of Warner Bros. domestic television distribution.
A wave of women flooding the workforce has been accompanied by a rise in the popularity of shows featuring women in charge of their lives – and influencing others.
Traditional soap opera themes of women in jeopardy or navigating relationships has given way to role models such as Winfrey power-brokering presidential candidates on her show, upscale female professionals crossing swords on “The View,” and litigants submitting to justice dispensed by a stern 68-year-old schoolmarm-in-a-lace-collar on “Judge Judy.”
“Women no longer feel that they need to have an escape in their daytime television,” says Brian Frons, president of daytime programming for the Disney ABC Television Group.
“They are looking for information so they can take an active role in changing their lives. It’s a huge difference from what we’ve seen before.”
In that environment, it’s not surprising that personality-driven, issue-oriented programs have stubbornly held on, accounting for the interest by television news big guns like Couric and Anderson in heading to daytime.
Trading the evening for the daytime shift may seem to carry the whiff of going down-market, but it also holds the promise for much greater riches.
Talk shows can be a powerful launchpad for a branded media empire, as demonstrated by Winfrey, Martha Stewart, Phil McGraw and Rachael Ray, who have all developed offshoot ventures, such as magazines, books and merchandise.
For TV stations, carrying an afternoon Couric talk show would seem like a reasonable bet after her successful 15-year run as co-anchor of NBC’s “Today.”
Couric, 54, appears to be looking for a more comfortable fit after a rocky five-year run on the “CBS Evening News.”
“It might be nice for me to have a little more wiggle room to show my personality,” she said last month on “Today.”
Cooper, who turns 44 this summer, also sees a daytime talk show as a platform to stretch his talents.
“There is a lot of opportunity to do a program that has variety; something that can cover a huge range of topics and become a place to tell interesting and intriguing stories,” says Cooper, who will continue to host “Anderson Cooper 360” for CNN. “I’m a more multi-dimensional person than a news environment will allow.”