Today's 'Oprah' bookends era for firstrun syndication business

Today’s airing of the final episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” bookends an era for the firstrun syndication business that is not likely to be matched again in the contempo multi-platform media universe.

Winfrey’s rise in daytime in the late 1980s helped drive the growth of a sector that has churned out billions in profits for broadcast TV stations and distribs large and small. Her national 1986 bow, after making a name for herself as the host of “A.M. Chicago” on ABC O&O WLS-TV, dovetailed with a period of rapid expansion for local broadcast stations. The advent of the Fox network made players out of once ragtag UHF stations, and the embrace of satellite delivery of daily programming improved the quality and timeliness of firstrun fare.

But throughout her 25-year reign in daytime, Winfrey was always in a class by herself. At its peak in the late 1990s, the show generated $300 million-$350 million in annual revenue for distributor King World Prods. Winfrey not only became a cultural force but also one of the world’s richest and most celebrated businesswoman.

“Her record may never be broken,” said Dennis Swanson, who gave Winfrey her shot on “A.M. Chicago” during his run as general manager of WLS in the 1980s. “It will be more difficult to do what she did in the future because of multiple platforms, because the audience is more fragmented now. Her timing was impeccable, no question about that.”

While watching Tuesday’s taping of the final seg, episode No. 4,561, former King World co-topper Michael King couldn’t stop thinking about his late brother and business partner, Roger King.

The King brothers’ King World Prods. became the national distributor for “Oprah Winfrey” after ABC passed on Swanson’s suggestion that they consider giving his local star a network deal. With Winfrey pushing to go national, Swanson (who is now prexy of station operations for the Fox O&Os) steered her to King World, which was riding high on the success of its newly revived gameshows “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!”

“I told her that the secret to success in syndication will be clearances, and that Roger King was in a position to get his phone calls answered,” Swanson said.

He was right. Roger King orchestrated the dealmaking for Winfrey’s shows with stations around the country, tapping his deep relationships with broadcasters to secure the top-tier lineup that helped ensure Winfrey’s success.

Even when Roger King’s health was failing in 2007, long after King World had been acquired by CBS, he made a point of personally handling the deals to renew “Oprah Winfrey” for another four years. Winfrey at that time had not formally announced her decision to wrap after 25 years, but Roger had a hunch that it made sense to extend her TV station deals through season 25, Michael King said.

“From the first to the last, he was the only one who ever sold that show,” he said.

Even in the mid-1980s, Roger King encountered resistance from some station managers to the notion of a black woman fronting a daytime talk show. He loved to tell the story of the general manager who declared that his station would get better ratings if he put “a potato” on the air.

King relayed that story to Winfrey with the promise that the g.m. would one day beg for the chance to carry “Oprah Winfrey.” He did, according to Michael King, but they never sold it to him, in keeping with King World’s iron-clad policy of never moving a show from its incumbent station unless the station balked at the renewal terms, which were always the richest in the biz.

Winfrey mentioned the oft-told “potato” story during a dinner at a Chicago eatery Monday night that she hosted for a handful of close friends — a crowd that included her fourth-grade teacher — as she prepped for the juggernaut of her last two days in syndication, Michael King said.

During the final taping on Tuesday, Winfrey was wistful and “elegant,” he said.

“She takes you on the road from when she first started as a local host through the journey of the last show,” King said. “She stood up on the stage almost the entire hour, just talking and showing some clips. It was a beautiful show.”

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