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Oprah: Who Wins? Who Loses? And Is She Really Quitting?

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Oprah Winfrey made it official on air today: on Sept. 9, 2011, she pulls the plug on the talk show that has dominated daytime TV for two decades. Says the Queen: “Twenty-five years feels right in my bones and feels right in my spirit.” Mo Ryan has the full statement. (In related news, Discovery announced a launch date of January 2011 for Oprah’s cable channel, OWN.)

Is Oprah actually done as a daytime host, though? The assessments of Oprah’s career have been rolling in as if she had died. But we have to at least consider her history of making huge decisions and later changing them. Remember her founding Oxygen, the channel for women? She was going to be heavily involved in it—maybe even move her show there—and then she wasn’t. She was going to end her show in 2006, and then she didn’t. She canceled Oprah’s Book Club and then she un-canceled it.

I am not saying that Oprah is going to change her mind. I’m just saying that if she does change her mind, I will claim to have totally called it. Until it is actually buried, I consider Oprah’s talkshow career as dead as a major character on 24.

But assuming, at minimum, that Oprah does end her syndicated show for good in 2011, and moves on to her cable channel, OWN—either as a manager and occasional on-screen talent, or by hosting a “new” talk show there as an anchor—who wins and who loses?

Winner: Discovery Networks. The company with whom Oprah is sharing OWN reportedly asked Oprah to go all in or go home: commit to the network and get off syndication or give up the idea. (They, at least, must remember Oxygen.) Whether Oprah does a full-on show there or not, a channel programmed with her stable of talent automatically becomes a player against TV syndication—especially if Oprah is not competing with herself.

Loser: Syndicated Broadcast TV. Syndication, including Oprah, has been losing audience inevitably to cable over the years, but with Oprah, it loses the biggest thing it has, and it’s hard to imagine it ever seeing her like again. CBS Syndication, Oprah’s soon-to-be-former company, is the big loser, of course, but all of syndication will be the worse off competing against a strong OWN.

Winner: Anybody pitching a new syndicated show. Whatever those realities are for syndication, there will inevitably be a gold rush to find “the next Oprah,” even if that proves to be fool’s gold. It will be a seller’s market. (But before anyone asks: even if Sarah Palin is planning a TV career, she’s not going to be after the same kind of show and niche as Oprah.)

Loser: Chicago. Assuming Oprah and The Windy City part ways, this is a big business loss for the city.

Winner: Tyra Banks, Judge Anybody, etc. Established players in the daytime market stand to benefit from the vacuum, or at least will get more attention as the vacuum approaches.

Loser: ABC (and broadcast TV in general). The ABC stations that have long thrived on Oprah to draw lead-in audiences for their news and have a halo effect on their other programming will of course take a blow. But also, in general, any further move of the daytime audience to cable will take another brick out of the great edifice that was once broadcast TV.

Winner: OWN, if Oprah does a talk show there. I’ve already heard people making the comparison to Howard Stern moving to satellite radio. (I.e., he made a ton of money and lost a ton of listeners.) Unless you will have to buy a special TV to watch OWN, I don’t buy this. A new Oprah show might lose a marginal number of viewers, but if an OWN with Oprah gets sufficient carriage—and it will—people will find it. The better analogy, maybe, is Monday Night Football, moving from ABC to ESPN. (Except that there, Disney got to keep MNF in the corporate family.)

Loser: OWN, if Oprah does not do a talk show there. To paraphrase the saying in baseball, people buy their tickets to watch Oprah play, not to watch Oprah manage. Oprah the boss is not doing her job if she does not convince Oprah the host to join her network.

Winner: Oprah. Well, that’s just a given, right? Succeed or fail, she will be richer than you can imagine and have the option of returning to TV at her slightest whim. Some things never change.