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The Oprah Effect 

Will KREM’s loss be a boon for other stations?

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Oprah Winfrey — queen of daytime talk and the head of her own media empire — is gone from afternoon television, but clearly not forgotten. For some, Oprah’s departure represents a great opportunity. For others, it means uncertainty.

KREM, which benefited from Oprah’s strong ratings leading in to its 5 pm newscast, faces that uncertainty. Known in the industry as a “lead-in,” shows like Oprah and the cadre of afternoon talk and judge programs help news programs gain valuable audience.

Locally, Oprah has generally been ratings leader at 4 pm, and at 5 pm, after Oprah, KREM news takes the lead, consistently beating KHQ and KXLY.

Deborah Potter analyzes TV news trends as executive director of NewsLab, a training and resource center for broadcast and online news. She says industry data indicates that lead-ins such as Oprah offer a significant boost to stations that carry the ratings titans.

“Stations try to position programs that draw a big audience just before the early local news with the goal of retaining that audience for their newscasts,” Potter says.

But KREM General Manager Jamie Aitken notes the station’s ratings aren’t solely dependent on Oprah. Aitken says ratings indicate a “large majority of our 5 pm audience comes to us from other stations or from televisions turned on specifically to watch our 5 pm news.”

Aitken is blunt about the prospect of what no Oprah means to KREM’s ratings.

“I’m not worried at all,” Aitken says. An Oprah favorite, Dr. Oz’s health show will be taking her coveted 4 pm slot.

KXLY General Manager Teddie Gibbon takes a different view, saying Oprah’s departure “will clearly provide for a more level playing field” in the always-competitive 5 pm news slot.

“Lead-ins are a big deal,” KHQ Executive News Director Neal Boling adds.

“There’s no question they have an impact on the ratings of the following program.”

KHQ airs Judge Judy before its 5 pm news, and no more Oprah means a chance to experiment. Boling says the station is moving Ellen DeGeneres’ program from 11 am to 3 pm, hoping to retain some of that show’s loyal audience, which is very similar to that of Oprah’s.

KXLY is doing some experimenting of its own, thanks in part to the recently announced syndicated talk show of Katie Couric, former CBS Evening News anchor and Today Show host. ABC stations like KXLY will begin running Couric’s show in September 2012, leaving over a year of post-Oprah experimentation.

For her part, Couric, recognizing the inevitable comparisons, has shied away from close characterizations as a replacement for Oprah. She told Jay Leno earlier this month that “no one can ever fill Oprah’s shoes.”

This fall, KXLY will carry The Nate Berkus Show (produced by Oprah’s Harpo Productions) at 4 pm. Then in fall 2012, ABC affiliates will carry Couric’s show at 3 pm and then The Doctors, a medical advice show at the all-important 4 pm lead-in slot, Gibbon says.

This shake-up comes at a time of palpable change in TV news, which has seen steep personnel cutbacks in recent years. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission issued a report assessing the “Information Needs of Communities.” The 465-page document (available at fcc.gov/infoneedsreport) covers just about every aspect of news and media in the U.S., including TV.

Local TV news is still a destination for most Americans. Seventy-eight percent get news from local stations, and half of Americans say they watch local news “regularly,” according to the FCC report.

At the same time, even with declining advertising revenue, local stations in general are doing an odd thing: They’re expanding. That is, they’re adding more hours of news, broadening their websites and launching neighborhood-specific news blogs and additional ventures, such as KHQ’s SWX sports and weather channel.

But even while many stations nationwide have added more content and coverage, 64 percent reported decreasing staff between 2008 and 2009, according to a study from the Radio Television Digital News Association.

Those cutbacks in staff size haven’t affected all Spokane stations. KHQ’s Boling says the situation at his station is “not the norm,” noting that KHQ’s staff size is actually bigger now than in years past. The station even plans to launch a Center for Investigative Action this summer to focus on investigative reporting, an area the FCC report says is declining in many local TV markets.

KXLY News Director Jerry Post recognizes that long-form investigations are still being done by Spokane stations, “but not as frequently.”

Whether boosting news coverage and rearranging lead-in programs cut into KREM’s 5 pm dominance will be for viewers — and their coveted ratings data — to decide.

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