Oprah Winfrey no-show at NATPE

Where’s Oprah?

The conspicuous absence of the top-rated talker from NATPE has set the rumor mill spinning and raised questions about the state of Oprah Winfrey’s relationship with King World Prods., the syndication powerhouse that distributes her show.

King World toppers Roger and Michael King say Winfrey, a regular at the National Assn. of TV Program Executives confab, simply wanted to spend her 40th birthday at home. A representative for Winfrey’s Harpo Prods. said Winfrey’s schedule didn’t allow her to attend this year. “She was taping shows this week for the February (Nielsen) ratings books and she wants to celebrate her birthday this Saturday at a small dinner party given by friends,” the rep said.

But that didn’t stop rival production and distribution sources from speculating that there’s more to it than that — namely that Winfrey is considering not renewing her contract beyond 1995.

The buzz on the floor is that Winfrey is disgusted with the wave of Oprah clones vying for airtime — everyone from Star Jones to Bertice Berry. But she may be even less pleased that her own distributor has rolled out “Rolanda,” starring Rolonda Watts, as a replacement for the ill-fated “Les Brown Show.”

Sources say Winfrey grudgingly gave her blessing to “Les Brown” last year, but that a new talkshow featuring a young, highly personable black woman with a background in broadcast journalism hits a little too close to home.

While King World is marketing “Rolonda” as “Your Next Favorite Talk Show,” they stop short — at least with the press — of calling it the next “Oprah.”

“These are both unique individuals and terrific talents, and it makes no sense to compare the two,” said Michael King.

No competition

Roger King said they will never allow “Rolonda”– which is already cleared in about 80% of the country in mainly morning slots — to compete with “Oprah” in any markets. “Ultimately, it may lead in or lead out, but they will never compete,” he said.

Winfrey — whose contract runs through the 1994-95 season — is key to King World’s fortunes. Her show generates revenues of $ 180 million a year, of which King World takes a 43% split — about $ 77 million.

Sources note that while the talk superstar is forbidden from taking her show to another syndicator for two years after her contract expires, she could stop doing the show to pursue other non-talk projects. She bought the theatrical rights to Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” in 1987 for a whopping $ 500,000, but Harpo has yet to move forward with that production.

Speculation is that Winfrey could let her contract expire, produce the movie and work on other in-house projects for two years and then come back with full control of her own show.

“Harpo already does its own publicity and affiliate relations, so she must be asking herself what does she really need King World for?” says a rival producer.

When questioned on the status of the contract renewal talks, King World execs will only characterize them as “continuing.” They told analysts gathered for a luncheon here that they have until January 1995 to renew Winfrey’s contract before it would have any impact on the show, which is renewed through September 1995.