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Is Oprah's era coming to an end?

Phil Rosenthal
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

For a stretch of time on Friday - while people still buzzed about her "30 Rock" visit the night before, wondered whether she would establish diplomatic relations with Sarah Palin and watched her finally meet the guy whose shoulder she sobbed on in Grant Park - the end of Oprah Winfrey's reign as Queen of Daytime TV was in sight.

But before there was time to jot feelings in a journal or find just the right scented candle to neutralize the trauma or squeeze in a stress-busting power walk or curl into a fetal ball while downing the most amazing sherbet available only in Poughkeepsie every other weekend in August, the scare had passed.

Like Tom Cruise, America could climb off the couch. Crisis averted.

The chief executive of Discovery Communications, Winfrey's 50-50 partner in the Oprah Winfrey Network, which is set to launch next year, told Wall Street analysts Winfrey was poised to shutter her Chicago-based internationally syndicated show in 2011 after 25 seasons. "The expectation is that after that, her show will go off of ... syndication, and she will come to OWN," he said.

But no one speaks for Oprah but Oprah, and, of course, Oprah's media relations team.

Lisa Halliday, chief spokeswoman for Winfrey's Harpo Productions, dismissed Discovery executive David Zaslav's comments as, um, premature.

Winfrey's current deal with CBS Television Distribution for "The Oprah Winfrey Show" does expire after the 2010-11 season, but Halliday issued a statement to clarify that "she has not made a final decision as to whether she will continue her show in syndication beyond that."

CBS Television Distribution, in its own statement, lavished praise on the host and said it "would certainly welcome and hope that 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' would continue in syndication beyond (2011), but that is a decision only Ms. Winfrey will be making."

The talk show continues to command huge license fees from local stations despite ratings erosion over the last year. Winfrey's post-Election Night show was a huge draw, but Broadcasting and Cable said last week that her show's viewership is off this year by 14 percent, and Variety reported that ABC's "The View," during the week of Oct. 27, finished No. 1 in key female demographics for the first time ever.

It's at least plausible that Winfrey might be ready to retire her program in two years, but she also has floated this notion before, only to reconsider and embrace a lucrative new renewal deal.

She did it in 1997 before she signed a renewal through 2002. When she re-signed in 2002, she said her 20th season in 2006 would be the end. By 2004, she changed her mind again and extended the deal yet once more. She only recently informed CBS that she was picking up the option on the final 2010-11 season of the current deal.

CBS will not say when it needs a final answer from Winfrey.

Meanwhile, Winfrey has explained she sees OWN as more than an opportunity to expand her media empire, which includes O magazine, the "Oprah & Friends" satellite radio channel, and a movie and television production company. It extends her legacy.

"The truth of the matter is, one day the show has to end. That may be 2011 and that may be after 2011," Winfrey told reporters when the new channel was announced. "This is an evolution of what I've been able to do every day. I will now have the opportunity to do that 24 hours a day on a platform that goes on forever."

OWN will replace the Discovery Health channel when it launches in more than 70 million homes in the second half of 2009. Winfrey is its chairwoman and will enjoy editorial control. What, if any, on-camera role she might have has yet to be delineated. In fact, her syndication deal limits her ability to put reruns of her daytime show on the channel.

"We're talking now about what (Winfrey's) presence would be and what programming she would be involved in directly," Discovery's Zaslav told analysts.

"But this is her Chapter 2, and building the OWN brand online and on-air is something that she and I, we're working (on) together, and it's a core mission for her."

Later, or (gasp) sooner.

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