Will talkshow queen remain in syndication?

Will she or won’t she?

Oprah Winfrey has a multimillion-dollar choice to make — and her decision whether or not to keep her daytime talkshow going will have a tremendous effect on TV stations, syndication distributors and ultimately several congloms.

“TV stations are saying, ‘What’s happening? We need to know the plan,’ ” one exec says. “But Oprah’s reticent to make decisions until she’s forced to. She waits until the last moment.”

Not only does her deal with stations — particularly the ABC-owned and Hearst-owned outlets where she has dominated in the ratings for decades — expire in fall 2011, but her deal with CBS Television Distribution is up as well.

Even if she decides to stay, Winfrey is facing the likely prospect of doing her show for a lot less money. Stations have long been willing to just break even or lose money on “Oprah” in exchange for the ratings bounce it delivers as a local news lead-in. But in these cash-strapped times, local outlets won’t be willing to pay the same rates they once did.

“Stations have made it clear to Harpo (Winfrey’s production company) that if she does come back, they’ll significantly reduce the license fee they pay,” one exec says. “Station revenues are down 40% to 50%, but they’re paying license fees projected on revenue remaining the same. Plus, her ratings are going down. She’s still the queen, but that’s an enormous problem.”

That’s why no one is discounting the very real possibility of Winfrey opting to pull up stakes and focus her attention full-time on OWN, her new network partnership with Discovery.

It’s no secret Discovery topper David Zaslav would like to see the host move her show to the cable channel — and several reports (and Zaslav himself) have suggested that may well be what Winfrey decides to do.

Sticking with syn­ dication would involve “a lot of work for less money,” one exec says. “Or she could go to cable and maybe not do the show at all, just do reruns and specials. But she’d be moving to a cable service with no identity so far. The ratings and her pulpit would be much less.”

The host so far has denied that any decision has been made, and has given herself an end-of-year deadline to announce whether or not she’ll leave first-run syndication when her deal is up in fall 2011.

Winfrey has been coy about the future of her syndicated talkshow for more than a decade, having first hinted in the late 1990s that the show would end. So far, that hasn’t been the case, although she has gradually decreased the number of originals she produces. Still, last year, when a window in her contract opened up to terminate the show a year early, Winfrey didn’t exercise that clause.

The December 2007 death of Roger King, the one-time King World topper who continued as CEO of CBS TV Distribution after selling the company to the Eye, also complicated matters. Winfrey dealt almost exclusively with King, and hasn’t forged much of a relationship with the other execs inside CBS (save Bob Madden, a King World alum who’s now senior exec VP at the Eye).

“Roger was the guy she relied upon for everything,” one industry player says. “It’s where she got all her info. Her professional life was ruled by Roger King.”

With King no longer there, Winfrey opted to launch her new “Dr. Oz” strip with rival Sony Pictures TV. And now, even if Winfrey decides to continue with her yakker, there’s a growing possibility that she might opt to leave CBS TV Distribution and go to Sony as well. Sony’s pitch to Winfrey likely lies in the fact that as an indie, it’s not beholden to any station group.

Even if she swapped distribution partners, Winfrey would likely remain on the ABC-owned stations in the top markets, given her longstanding relationships with those outlets and executives. Ditto Hearst, which also distributes Winfrey’s monthly magazine. Even though Winfrey doesn’t attract quite as large an audience she once did, she’s still up year-to-year among total viewers (7.2 million season to date, vs. 6.5 million last year) and adults 18-49. No other talk franchise comes close.

But if Winfrey opts to quit, a daytime shuffle could be in the offing.

In one scenario, Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution might make a play to grab those ABC station slots for “Ellen.” The “Ellen” show’s deal with NBC stations happens to also be up in 2011 — and execs there see Ellen DeGeneres as the heir to Winfrey’s talk queen crown. Winfrey, who just put DeGeneres on the cover of her magazine, even appears to have an affinity for her rival.

Of course, DeGeneres could make a play for that crown even if “Ellen” sticks with the NBC stations, particularly if the ABC outlets opt to replace Winfrey with local news rather than another talkshow.

In a less likely scenario, Disney sees an opportunity to finally claim that news lead-in time slot for its own first-run syndicated strip. But given the company’s dismal track record in that arena, such a move is unlikely.

Few execs believe a new host will rise from the ashes to carry Winfrey’s mantle, even if Winfrey personally annoints a successor. (Winfrey pal Gayle King, long discussed as a potential successor, has already tried and failed with a show of her own.)

But industry execs still aren’t so sure Winfrey will blink and give up her still-powerful platform when the time comes to make a decision. One exec noted the lesson of Howard Stern — whose media impact has diminished greatly since moving from broadcast to satellite radio.

Another exec cited the lesson of San Francisco’s once-mighty KRON, which collapsed as a relevant TV station after losing its NBC affiliation.

“It’s her choice,” says one station exec. “She only has to ask herself one question: Do you want to be Oprah, or ‘used to be Oprah’? Once you give it up, it’s gone.”

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