DeGeneres is a rising star in daytime

Friday, February 12, 2010 - 5:44pm

Executives at Warner Brothers have long believed that Ellen DeGeneres is the heir apparent to Oprah Winfrey in daytime TV. Still, they were startled by the news that a media research firm delivered to them last spring.

The researchers from SmithGeiger, who had been hired to assess talk shows, convened to tell a group of six executives that “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” was, for the first time, on par with “The Oprah Winfrey Show” (and, in some cases, exceeding “Oprah”) in the minds of viewers. They had ample reason to conclude that this was Ms. DeGeneres’s moment.

One of the executives closed the meeting room door, and said the data must not leave the room — after all, Ms. Winfrey had not yet decided that her talk show would end in September 2011.

But once Ms. Winfrey did decide, last November, Warner Brothers put the research to work, and before long it had brokered a deal, announcing on Wednesday night that NBC’s 10 owned-and-operated stations would keep broadcasting Ms. DeGeneres’s show through 2014.

The contract extension amounted to the first big bet on the post-Winfrey landscape, and not necessarily a hard bet for NBC Universal to make. Viewer studies and ratings trends suggest that the effervescent Ms. DeGeneres is best positioned to break out from the talk show pack when Ms. Winfrey leaves the stage.

Why? Because her hourlong show is upbeat and inspirational, two traits that appeal to daytime’s core female audience, according to the studies, which TV executives rely on as they make decisions. Equally important, the 52-year-old Ms. DeGeneres is seen as relaxed and relatable. Already, she is seen as more likable than Ms. Winfrey, according to the Q Scores Company, which measures consumer preferences.

Ms. DeGeneres’s star is rising at a stressful time for broadcast TV, when ratings and revenue for syndicated talk shows are far slimmer than they were at Ms. Winfrey’s peak. No one expects “Ellen” to literally replace “Oprah” in terms of popularity. But a hit show in syndication can still be a cash cow for its distributors and broadcasters; for Ms. Winfrey, it remains the cornerstone of a multibillion-dollar media empire.

Now Warner Brothers is positioning Ms. DeGeneres as the next benefactor of the businesses. Already, the host’s career moves — like her decision to be a judge on “American Idol,” an enormous promotional platform — have seemingly been engineered to enhance her daytime host identity. (Warner Brothers declined to comment.)

In September 2011, the ABC-owned stations that have shown “Oprah” for decades in most of the country’s biggest cities will need a replacement in the time slot. “Ellen” was a contender, and one with perfect timing, as her contracts with the competing NBC stations were set to expire the very same month. But NBC Universal apparently proved willing to pay a higher license fee to keep the show for its station group through 2014.

“These types of franchise opportunities don’t come along very often,” said an executive who requested anonymity because his studio would not comment on the terms of the deal.

In a viewer study that was shared with local TV stations last month, Frank N. Magid Associates found that Ms. DeGeneres’s seven-year-old show — which features games, music, jokes and interviews with celebrities — has been seen by viewers as “improving” for several years, more so than any of her competitors.

When the Magid panelists were surveyed about their attitudes toward daytime hosts, Ms. DeGeneres was in a virtual tie with Ms. Winfrey, even though there is a ratings lag, according to Steve Ridge, president of the media strategy group for Magid.

“Ellen already has equity with daytime viewers, which is worth its weight in gold,” he said.

Viewer awareness of “Oprah” and “Ellen” is roughly even, said Henry Schafer, an executive vice president at Q Scores. “The big difference is, these days, Ellen is a much more likable personality than Oprah,” he said.

Ms. Winfrey’s program, however, creates a much stronger emotional bond with viewers, perhaps explaining why “Oprah” is still far and away the No. 1 syndicated talk show, albeit one that is waning.

“Oprah” averaged 8.4 million viewers a day in the 2005-6 TV season, and sank to an average of 6.2 million viewers in the 2008-9 season, according to the Nielsen Company, mirroring industrywide declines. So far this season, “Oprah” has rebounded significantly, to an average of 6.5 million a day. “Ellen” meanwhile, has demonstrated growth, with an average of 3.1 million viewers a day this season, up from around 2.7 million for each of the last four years, according to Nielsen.

TV executives are sensitive about comparisons of the two women, and there is ample evidence that the hosts are friendly with each other; Ms. DeGeneres was one of the first people Ms. Winfrey called with her show-ending news last November. Ms. Winfrey will concentrate on her cable channel, OWN, which will make its debut in January 2011.

OWN, in fact, was engaged in serious negotiations to bring “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” to cable, but NBC won out, according to two people with knowledge of the talks who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to comment.

Warner Brothers will now turn its attention to the other “Ellen” contracts with local stations, most of which expire in 2012. It will most likely push for “Ellen” to be placed in the desirable slots that “Oprah” occupies, if not on the same stations.