Now that Oprah Winfrey has made it official that she’s ending her talk show in September 2011, the focus now turns to those 215 stations that aired the Queen of Daytime and how they’ll attempt to retain the 7 million-plus viewers who tune into Winfrey every day. Speculation is already rampant that Winfrey could groom a successor on her show (she’s already responsible for the launches of Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil) but it seems more likely that she’ll make a quick getaway from CBS Television, which syndicated her show, and the ABC- and Hearst-owned stations that aired her and leave the companies to fend for themselves. Winfrey has OWN, her new cable network to focus on, after all.

So who – or what – takes her place? Syndication companies like Disney/ABC Domestic Distribution could suddenly unveil who they believe represents the 21st century version of Oprah Winfrey (Sarah Palin? Kate Gosselin?) but industry experts question whether such a search has taken place – or is even possible. Says one key studio executive, “Everybody has been waiting for Oprah to leave but the idea that this new surprise host or new show will come in and be successful? That’s just specious. Everybody believed that Oprah wasn’t going away so the idea that this new show was sitting around, year after year, but wasn’t brought forth just belies common sense.” There’s also been talk that Disney could move The View off of broadcast and into syndication, where it could fill the void once Winfrey leaves (unfortunately, an ABC daytime spokeswoman declined to comment about that).

The more likely scenario is that the ABC-owned and operated stations will launch local newscasts rather than attempt to replace Winfrey’s costly talk show (though her show still dominates, her ratings have dropped over the years so Winfrey probably would have had to do her show for a lower license fee, had she decided to stick around beyond 2011). “She’s at the end of traditional broadcast TV,” says Katz Television Group’s Bill Carroll, citing increased threats from cable stations and DVRs. “Her dominance will unlikely ever happen again.”

Then, there’s Ellen DeGeneres. Her deal with the NBC stations just so happens to expire at the same time of Winfrey’s, so her home studio, Warner Bros. TV Distribution, could incite a bidding war in those major ABC markets. It even appears that Winfrey sees DeGeneres as potential heir apparent; the 55-year-old uber-host called Degeneres yesterday to reveal her plans about leaving daytime and both hosts served as guests on each other’s shows (DeGeneres even appeared alongside Winfrey on a recent cover of O Magazine). Could DeGeneres assume the mantle as the Queen of Daytime? Opines the studio executive, “I think Oprah has a sense of history and a sense of the moment. When she looks back five years from now, she’ll probably ask ‘Who do I want to have on top? … who do I want to be associated with?’ In her own way, she may be passing the mantle without overtly doing it to Ellen. She may feel Ellen represents (the next generation) of what Oprah does.”