When Oprah Winfrey exits daytime television in late 2011, she could be taking an entire era with her.
Daytime television, once a lucrative channel for advertisers to reach housewives and college students, is in a transition as the recession is moving eyeballs away from television sets, with more people forced to take jobs to sustain household incomes.
Ms. Winfrey's syndicated show, based in Chicago, is considered a bedrock program for local affiliates in daytime. Its popularity not only wins advertisers – in some markets, the show is essential for propping up ratings for local newscasts.
But even her dominion has waned with the changing media landscape and the shift in viewer habits since her halcyon days in the 1990s. Ratings for "The Oprah Winfrey Show" continue to show she rules daytime, but less so each year. In 1991-92, ratings for the show averaged 12.6 million viewers, double the 6.2 million who collectively tuned in from 2008-09.
The decline may have less to do with Winfrey's star power than with how viewing habits have changed.
Since her show began, the media landscape exploded; besides the countless cable networks vying for viewers, online video and social media are now also taking viewers away from their living room sets. Digital video recorders are also cutting into the market. The Nielsen Company reports that 23 percent of US homes have a DVR this year, and that number is expected to grow. [Editor's note: The original version gave a previous name for the Nielsen Company that is no longer used.]
With television viewing becoming not just more varied, but also more mobile and agile, networks can no longer comfortably rely on viewers to show up in front of their sets at a certain hour each day. Neither can advertisers. Both of which explain the recent ratings decline for the majority of daytime programming.
Soap operas are in their bleakest days. Ratings for soap opera perennials "All My Children," "General Hospital," "Days of Our Lives," and "The Young and The Restless" ranged between 4.2 and 7.9 million in 1998; in 2008, ratings for the four shows dropped to between 2.5 and 4.9 million. In September, CBS canceled "Guiding Light," the genre's longest running hit after pulling in only 2.7 million viewers this year, down from 5 million in 1999.
Daytime talk shows are not faring any better. November ratings for the 13 top-rated daytime talk shows showed an increase in household viewing for only five shows. Top of the list was Winfrey, reaching 5.5 million. Since Winfrey's announcement, media stories debated possible heirs, but there appears to be none – even Dr. Phil McGraw, host of a Winfrey spin-off, saw his ratings sink 18 percent.
As the media landscape continues to expand by whittling programming into niche offerings via cable networks and online media, broadcast networks will no longer be able to rely on business as usual.
Even Winfrey knows that – she is expected to launch a new show via OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, a cable venture she created in partnership with Discovery Networks. Not only is she the queen of talk, but after 25 years, she also has good timing, too.
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