How do they replace the irreplaceable?

Perhaps former Warner Bros.’ syndie chief Dick Robertson said it first, but it’s become a sort of mantra: “You can’t underpay for failure, and you can’t overpay for a hit.”

That’s the dynamic that stations are facing with the departure of CBS Television Distribution’s “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which will end its 25-year run with a blowout series finale in May and then air in repeats until September. Viewers have no need to be bereft — they’ll be able to see Winfrey on her new eponymous cable network when her syndication run ends — but for TV stations, it’s a different story.

Like most relationships, the end of station partnerships with “Oprah” comes with both big pros and big cons. No longer will stations have to relinquish huge license fees to CTD and Harpo, but neither will they have the massive “Oprah” audiences on which to rely for leading into their evening newscasts, which are some of the most profitable times of a station’s day.

The station group that stands to take the biggest hit is ABC, which airs “Oprah” on seven of its 10 owned stations (two of which — WJRT in Flint, Mich., and WTVG in Toledo, Ohio — were put on the market in November). “Oprah” is partly credited for helping ABC build its station group into the nation’s strongest.

Now ABC will have to make do without her. So far, the plan for most markets is to replace “Oprah” with locally produced shows, including a morning program in Chicago. In Los Angeles, ABC has acquired Sony’s “Dr. Oz” because KABC, and the market in general, is already news-heavy in the afternoon.

At first, those moves should burnish the books of the ABC stations, say syndicators.

“ABC will look more profitable after those stations lose ‘Oprah,’ so they will have that going for them,” says one syndication executive. “There’s no way it’s going to cost as much to produce the news as it did for them to buy ‘Oprah.’ Still, I think local stations sometimes think the better solution is to produce shows cheaper and on their own, but I don’t think it is. For the long-term success of their stations, the best solution is having the best lead-in possible for their local news.”

Whether the best lead-in possible is local news or a syndicated first-run show remains to be seen, but “Oprah” lasted so long and cost so much — more than a quarter of a million dollars per week in some major markets — for a reason. Even though the show’s ratings declined by nearly a third over its last five years on the air, it’s still daytime’s biggest talk show. And having big ratings during the day still helps stations build an audience that stays with it through the evening news, primetime and latenight, even in this era of fragmented media.

“People give up big franchises because they think they are going to cost-cut their way to success,” points out another syndicator. “Those stations might become a little more profitable, but how much do those costs affect the shows leading in and out of it? Ultimately, you could be wrecking precious hours of television. That’s the sin that people started committing: They started to make the earlier daytime periods more fungible because they could put something there for less. All you’ve done is cut costs, kind of like what NBC did in prime, but you haven’t fortified the time period.”

That brings stations back to the question: How much can they afford to pay for success? “Oprah” stations will find out this fall.

“I do think there’s going to be a phase where people think, ‘Wow, we miss her,’ ” says Ira Bernstein, co-president of Debmar-Mercury. “There isn’t an ‘Oprah’ replacement. People are going to move ‘Ellen,’ ‘Oz’ or ‘Dr. Phil’ or do local news. That will take the average rating of your daytime down, and it will take your lead-out down. It’s a big deal, and she will be sorely missed.”

More from NATPE 2011:
Stations savor reinvigorated cash flow | Stations face post-’Oprah’ conundrum | Local affiliates look to grow their own | Miami heats up NATPE | Split personality at NATPE | What’s coming to market at NATPE?

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more