NEW YORK — Since Oprah Winfrey packed up the couch that Tom Cruise jumped on and ended her daytime talk show last year, no one has truly filled her role as the top go-to person in television for major celebrity and news interviews.
Now someone is trying to claim that spot — and would you believe it's Oprah again?
Faced with the potential failure of her money-pit cable network OWN, Winfrey is working the phones hard to secure big-name interviews for her show, "Oprah's Next Chapter." Back-to-back episodes recently featured the Kardashian family and rapper 50 Cent, and the Kardashians will be back this weekend. Michael Jackson's daughter Paris and the late Whitney Houston's family made news with their interviews in recent weeks.
The open question is whether she can have the same cultural impact on a smaller stage. Winfrey's daytime talk show was generally seen by around 6 million people in her final years; "Oprah's Next Chapter" with the Kardashians was seen by 1.1 million viewers, according to the Nielsen company.
"I am sure that people have a conversation about that when they are exploring their options," said Sheri Salata, OWN president. "The one constant we have ... is that you have the opportunity to sit down with Oprah."
Winfrey's daytime show wasn't all about interviews, of course. But in her last few seasons, she sat down for conversations with the likes of Tina Fey, Elizabeth Edwards, Michelle Obama, Madonna, Denzel Washington, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Branson and Beyonce.
The audience was primarily women but, as Cruise proved with his eager declarations of love for Katie Holmes in 2005, the cultural impact could spread beyond the afternoon.
"Doing an interview on one of those shows was like Johnny Carson asking you to come sit with him after you've done your stand-up," said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "If there was any equivalent to playing the Palace at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries, being on 'Oprah' might have been it."
While Thompson said that "half the people can't find OWN on their cable television," that may underestimate Winfrey. The "Oprah's Next Chapter" episode with Houston's family in March premiered to 3.5 million people, Nielsen said. Many others heard about it or saw clips.
Winfrey's presence in daytime was a mixed blessing for veteran Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman. Most of his clients wanted to be on "Oprah" and were convinced they had a story she wanted to hear. When they did, it was great.
When they didn't, not so great. "It was a ton of pressure," he said, "and there's a part of me that is happy the pressure has lifted."
Now he can suggest a media strategy with interviewers who can reach his clients' target audiences. Bragman often goes retro, preferring the news divisions at broadcast television networks.
Ellen DeGeneres is probably the leading personality in daytime now, but her show is about entertainment. Dr. Phil and Anderson Cooper get some interviews, as do "The View" and "The Talk."
None has the impact that Winfrey had on a consistent basis, said Bill Carroll, an expert in the syndication market for Katz Media.
Also missing from the scene is CNN's Larry King, who didn't have the same juice as Winfrey but had a friendly reputation that made him a popular stop for people with hard stories to tell. King's replacement, Piers Morgan, is not as established and is dragged down by CNN's ratings problems.
Katie Couric, whose daytime talk show starts in the fall, could be Winfrey's true heir as an interviewer in daytime. Her lengthy tenure at NBC's "Today" show makes her able to deftly switch from world leaders to actors to quirky celebrities enjoying 15 minutes of fame. "Not many people can do that," Bragman said.
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