Before telling the world that she planned to give up her talk show in 2011 to focus on her new cable network, OWN, Oprah Winfrey made three notable phone calls: one to the head of Disney, which owns the major ABC stations that air her show; another to the CEO of CBS, which distributes her show; and a third to Ellen DeGeneres, who competes against her show. Calling the competition to tell them you’re quitting isn’t exactly protocol (it’s not like Jay Leno rang up David Letterman), but then DeGeneres is no ordinary rival. She and Winfrey have appeared on each other’s shows and, last month, on the cover of O magazine together. Does the outgoing Queen of Daytime view DeGeneres as her heir apparent? For now, DeGeneres downplays the relationship. ”She called me because we’ve become friendly ever since I did the O cover with her,” DeGeneres tells EW exclusively. ”It’s just amazing to me that everybody’s talking about who’s going to take her place. There is no taking her place.”
That won’t stop syndication companies from trying, though. Speculation has centered on a new talk show featuring Katie Couric, whose contract as the anchor of CBS Evening News expires May 2011 (though insiders are doubtful that she’ll want to venture into this territory). There’s talk of moving ABC’s The View to afternoons (something that would require major gymnastics). And there’s always the possibility that Winfrey could groom a replacement herself — after all, her latest creation, Dr. Oz, is the highest-rated new daytime talk show since Oprah engineered the debut of Rachael Ray in 2006. Oprah’s also creating a promising show for her lifestyle guru, Nate Berkus.
But it seems more likely the stations that carry Oprah and rely on it as a strong lead-in for their profitable local newscasts will either add another hour of news or develop lifestyle shows of their own. (Don’t count on them buying Dr. Phil; he’s locked up on the CBS stations through 2014.) ”The cost of bringing over a Dr. Oz or even Ellen has got to be substantial,” says Katz Media Group’s Bill Carroll, who advises local stations about programming. ”Oprah is unique. Anyone coming onto the scene faces a different challenge than she faced when she first went on.” Which may be why Winfrey seems eager to show her support for DeGeneres, who faces Winfrey in 54 markets and has the battle scars to show for it. (DeGeneres averages 2.8 million viewers to Winfrey’s 7 mil.) ”I think Oprah has a sense of history and a sense of the moment,” says one insider close to DeGeneres. ”When Oprah looks back five years from now, she’ll probably ask, ‘Who do I want to have on top?’ She may feel Ellen represents the next generation.”
— Additional reporting by Dave Karger