There is no single replacement for Oprah Winfrey.
That is not necessarily a statement about the dominance of her 23-year-old television institution, "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Rather, it is the reality of television syndication.
As Winfrey prepares to leave the broadcast airwaves in two years, a stable of talk shows are in competition to fill her time slot on more than 200 stations across the country. Individual stations are bound to place differing bets, drastically reshaping the daytime TV landscape.
As with NBC and Jay Leno earlier this year, the television chess board is being rearranged by a talk show host. Winfrey's departure could even affect the ratings for the network evening newscasts.
"All of a sudden, there are so many moving pieces," said Bill Carroll, who recommends syndicated shows to stations for the Katz Television Group.
Even before Winfrey announced Friday that 2011 would be, as she put it, the "exact right time" to step off her broadcast stage, TV executives were jostling on behalf of Ellen DeGeneres, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Phil McGraw and other hosts who aim to benefit from the syndication shake-up.
Analysts say that DeGeneres and Dr. Oz, in particular, stand to gain, because their deals with stations will come up for renewal at the same time that Winfrey intends to depart. Aspiring hosts could emerge as well.
"I'm sure there are a number of people calling their agents today and saying, 'I think I could be the next Oprah,'" Carroll said.
No matter what, it seems, Winfrey comes out a winner in syndication. Already, she has groomed another decade's worth of new talk show hosts.
She ordained McGraw in 2002, and his talk show, "Dr. Phil," now ranks second behind her own hour. She followed up with "Rachael Ray" in 2006 and "The Dr. Oz Show" this fall. "Dr. Oz" is already a hit. And now she is developing a program for Nate Berkus, her favorite interior designer, for fall 2010.
Already, executives at Winfrey's distributor, CBS, and at its competitors are thinking about how to fill the Oprah void - and how to capture new market share when she exits.
Carroll said the industry would be carefully watching the scheduling decisions of the stations owned and operated by ABC that carry Winfrey in most of the country's biggest TV markets, usually in the 4 p.m. hour. Winfrey, whose program has averaged 6.8 million viewers this season, guides many of those viewers to the station's local newscasts.
Closely watching, as well, will be evening news anchors like Katie Couric. "World News" on ABC, to be anchored by Diane Sawyer beginning in January, has historically been given a lift by "Oprah," analysts say, to the detriment of the third-place "CBS Evening News" with Couric.
"Look at what happens in sports when a dynasty gets broken up. It opens up the playing field for everyone else," said a senior executive at a distributor who, like other TV executives interviewed for this article, requested anonymity because programming negotiations normally take place in private.
The playing field is shrinking, however. Fewer viewers are watching daytime talk shows than a decade ago, mirroring the broader audience shift from broadcast television to cable and making it more difficult for stations to afford the expensive license fees that CBS charges for Winfrey's show.
Analysts say the prospect of lower license fees in the future contributed to Winfrey's decision to move to cable. (Her production company, Harpo, is a co-owner in OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, which is expected to make its debut in January 2011. After "The Oprah Winfrey Show" ends in September of that year, she will "participate in new programming" for OWN, Harpo said in a statement on Friday.)
In the syndication structure, stations try to recoup the licensing fee by selling advertising time, about 11 minutes worth during "The Oprah Winfrey Show." But for many stations, "Oprah" is so expensive that it is a loss leader.
Winfrey's daytime talk show will be missed, said Emily Barr, the president and general manager at WLS-TV in Chicago, "but we will also move on and see what else is out there."
ABC's station group could fill the "Oprah" void with local newscasts or develop its own talk show. Those are the only ways to control costs going forward, Carroll said.
ABC executives have also talked in the past about moving "The View," which the network owns, to the late afternoon.
What about Winfrey's other stations? Syndication executives expect "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," which is distributed by Warner Brothers and is licensed to NBC-owned stations until 2011, to increase its audience share.
Currently, "Ellen is more for entertainment and Oprah is more for information," said Joel Berman, a former president of worldwide TV distribution for CBS Paramount. Citing Winfrey's star booking power, he said "Ellen will be a natural venue for these big celebrity guests to go."
The two women have become closer over the years, promoting speculation that Winfrey was somehow anointing DeGeneres as a successor. The two women share the cover of O, The Oprah Magazine this month.
Winfrey "will always be the queen of daytime television," DeGeneres told her audience after taping her talk show Thursday - "and she also said she is leaving me all of her money," she jokingly added.
"The Dr. Oz Show," which had its premiere in September, largely on Fox stations, could also benefit. Out of the gate, it has averaged 3.5 million viewers in daytime, only 250,000 fewer than "Dr. Phil."
Two weeks ago, CBS extended its station deals for "Dr. Phil" through 2014 in 20 of the country's top 25 markets.
The contracts for "Dr. Oz" and "Dr. Phil" forbid them from being shown at the same hour as Winfrey - but those restrictions end when her talk show ends.
The shake-up might also make more room for lower-rated talk shows by Martha Stewart, Tyra Banks and Bonnie Hunt, among others.
Looking farther afield, Couric, whose CBS News contract is up in 2011, has long been mentioned as a possible syndicated star.
And of course, the competitive landscape two years from now may also include Winfrey herself. Stations will be watching to see what the OWN channel shows at 4 p.m.
"Will anyone equal the ratings Oprah had done in the past, or even what she's doing today? If I were going to make an educated guess, I would say no," Carroll said. "Will there be a program leader in the new environment? Yes. Who that will be, only the viewers know."