Why Even $1 Million Ads in Oprah Finale Leaves Money on the Table

'The Oprah Winfrey Show' Sendoff Belongs on Prime Time, but You Probably Won't See It There

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One of TV's annual rites every May is the sendoff of one long-running and beloved show or another. Last May viewers and advertisers gravitated to the final broadcast of ABC's "Lost," for example, the run-up to which generated inordinate amounts of hype and, in turn, ballooning ad rates. ABC wound up seeking $850,000 to $900,000 for commercials during the last "Lost," more than 400% above its price in the most recent upfront market.

This May the biggest series finale will not be a prime-time program but a popular daytime talk show, as the iconic Oprah Winfrey ends her show after 25 seasons on May 25, the conclusion of the May sweeps and the 2010-11 broadcast season. CBS Corp.'s syndication division is seeking $1 million from advertisers for the final show, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday, many times what the show usually commands. But it may actually be leaving money on the table.

Not since Johnny Carson retired from "The Tonight Show" after 30 years in May (of course) of 1992 has TV's most anticipated series finale not been a prime-time program. The Carson finale aired in its usual late-night time period and averaged an impressive 41 million viewers. Imagine how big the audience might have been if that sendoff had appeared in prime time.

Oprah Winfrey has often been referred to as the "queen of daytime television." For the past 25 years she has been the host of the highest-rated talk show in syndication. That's still true: Her syndicated show has been averaging 7 million viewers this season, higher than any network TV programming in weekday daytime.

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey Credit: Harpo Productions, Inc.

Because "The Oprah Winfrey Show" is syndicated, moreover, the local TV stations that carry it have the ability to broadcast the program in any time period. In a large majority of markets, stations "clear" her show as the lead-in for the lucrative early evening newscast.

But this flexibility also means that stations could decide to broadcast Oprah's finale in prime time. The question is, Why wouldn't they? After all, her finale draws the curtain on one of TV's most dominant and long-running programs in the history of the medium. By airing Oprah's finale at night, it would give the show the largest viewing audience possible -- and an opportunity to charge advertisers even more.

Although airing a syndicated program in prime time is rare, it's not unheard of. On several occasions in the 1980s, network affiliates pre-empted network shows to clear a syndicated show in prime time. In fact, the highest rated program in the history of syndicated TV was a live prime-time special: "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vault," hosted by Geraldo Rivera, which attracted nearly 30 million viewers across scores of affiliated stations in 1986. There were other high-profile and high-rated live event specials soon afterward.

Although the TV landscape has fractionalized, it is not inconceivable that the buzz surrounding the end of Oprah's talk show would generate a sizable audience at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. In all likelihood, it would be one of the most watched shows of the May sweeps.

If "Oprah" has been averaging 7 million viewers in daytime, and will get perhaps 10 million for a daytime finale, imagine how many people the show could attract in prime time, especially as a live special. In May, after all, the weekday 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. hour attracts 90% more viewers than the weekday 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. hour, according to Nielsen. The 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. hour gets more than double the 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. hour. The number of viewers in prime time is even higher with Oprah's primary audience of 25- to 54-year-old women. It's possible that a prime-time sendoff for "Oprah" could average 20 million viewers, making it the most-watched series finale since "Everybody Loves Raymond" signed off.

For all that, however, it's highly unlikely you'll see "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in prime time across all markets. In smaller markets where the network affiliates aren't owned and operated by the broadcast networks themselves, you may well see the last "Oprah" pre-empt something that night. But the broadcast networks would all oppose such a move because they want to maximize their own prime-time programming and season finales. And the networks own and operate the broadcast affiliates in most major markets themselves.

Brad Adgate is senior VP-research for Horizon Media.
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