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Shruti Eva Saini

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The Oprah Phenomenon -- Can Katie Couric Do the Same?

Posted: 07/11/2012 2:52 pm

When Oprah Winfrey announced the final run of The Oprah Show series and divulged her plan to part ways with mainstream cable to launch OWN (The Oprah Winfrey Network) I, like many women in my age demographic of 18-49, was affected. Maybe I shouldn't have been so affected considering my own disruption was minimal (the last time I had actually watched her talk show was nearly nine years prior to the announcement). Yet, nonetheless, I still found myself affected.

Although the circuit of celebrity guests Oprah interviewed over the years had swapped spouses, lost contracts, and faded from view and although Oprah herself undoubtedly transitioned with time, all of her own morphing took place within the steady sanctum of her show. Reaching for the remote to tune in was as much of a daily fixture for many women as was reaching for the milk in the refrigerator. Her staid on air presence telegraphed a beacon of comfort and soothing stability. It was like having a standing commitment every day, a daily afternoon date to laugh, cry, smile, realize, and learn.

Yet beyond having something to simply watch in the afternoon, the show provided many with prescriptive guidelines on how to script their lives: what books to read, movies to watch, foods to eat, gifts to buy, vacations to take, clothes to wear, relaxation techniques to try, dieting tips to live by, organizational tricks to employ, couple's therapy sessions to attempt ... the list goes on. The show wielded an intimate impact that not only solidified its place in the personal journeys of millions, but also represented a brand marketer's dream to land a featured segment on the show.

After the final show aired, I found myself wondering where all the Oprah viewers went. How many women within her devout following actually faithfully followed her to OWN (and paid the premium price to do so)? How many didn't?

What is this exclusive group of women now watching in that afternoon hour?

It's a lucrative group and a dynamic one whose own alchemy spans varying ages. It's also a group who has proven that their tastes and preferences cannot be defined within the guardrails of what previous generations found compelling.

Take the recent fate of the day time melodrama. A shrinking pool of older women representative of their target viewership were attracted to the storyline and mapping of the original soap opera recipe, a television formula that a growing group of younger women weren't as drawn to -- an attitudinal shift that led to faltering and declining ratings and ultimately signaled the end of the daytime stronghold soap operas once enjoyed, culminating in a chorus of cancellations.

The death of soap operas, shows once equated to daytime TV, is symptomatic of an underlying structural shift that's been taking place with afternoon television.

In thinking of where viewer allegiance has shifted, how heroic of an assumption is it to say that these women have replaced their precious cavity of afternoon time with another show? What other means of distraction have swooped in to occupy and displace their attention?

This group of women is becoming savvier and smarter with how they use their discretionary time. Toggling amongst their smart phones, tablets, laptops, and televisions for information consumption and interaction is a common phenomenon. Digital device induced ADD is now increasingly normal behavior as is spreading our attention to different screens at appropriate times.

Whereas Oprah commanded the lion's share of afternoon eyeballs among this demographic of women, no single TV personality seems to have taken over the royal reins of afternoon TV. Her original viewership dispersed in varied directions and in so doing created a severely fragmented marketplace of viewers. Just this past year, a slew of new afternoon talk shows cropped up to join the afternoon lineup in hopes of stealing some of this prized group's attention.

Bethenny Frankel was given the chance to spin her reality popularity into afternoon gold with her own talk show, Bethenny, this summer. Anderson Cooper has his own afternoon talk show, Anderson, and ABC, no doubt hoping to capitalize on their strong morning viewership base, recently launched Good Afternoon America, a daytime variation of their morning show that premiered earlier this week. The Talk. The Chew. Even the shows that claim to specialize in a given area need to branch out into tangential topics to curate and sustain appeal, yet their offering is largely undifferentiated.

In an attempt to replace the queen, TV land has fallen flat.

Or, is it too soon to tell?

It takes trust to broker a longstanding relationship, and that rings true with talk show hosts as well. So maybe it's too soon to gauge whether long term mettle and staying power has been established. Yet, time is a valuable commodity. Networks are quick to close the syndication window if interest hasn't been generated in the first several weeks and us viewers have already proven to be an impatient group (we do have device induced ADD after all). Perhaps the lead time Oprah once had to curate her own iconic status isn't the same luxury current hosts necessarily have, especially those newer to the scene.

Okay, so maybe we're more likely to watch someone we already have a relationship with. Someone familiar to us with an existing fan base that can be leveraged...

Ah, right. Cue Katie Couric.

Move over Ellen, Anderson, and Wendy. It's Katie's turn. Again.

Katie's self titled show is slated to air in September. Granted, Katie wasn't the best fit for primetime even after they attempted to force fit her into portraying the part. But she's already done morning and evening, so why not tackle the afternoon? With her already established viewer familiarity and longstanding stint on Today and CBS Evening News, she might be the winning ticket. But will it be enough?

Many of us who grew up with Oprah did so because she was a part of our daily routine. Now that our daily routine has undergone some dramatic shifts and our attention is parsed across varying viewership platforms, can the same model that made The Oprah Show a success ever truly be recreated and, more importantly, succeed in the same way the original had? Even if all the ingredients of Katie's show are in place to make it a hit, both content and personality wise, that might not be enough.

If staunch devotion to a singular show is a dated concept, Katie won't stand a chance.

 

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