Deadly Dull: Oprah Live Fridays

Have you seen Oprah lately? On Fridays?
In an effort to reinvent itself, the dominant daytime talk show of the past two decades seems to have lost its focus. Why is mighty Oprah trying to be The View?
That’s the impression I get watching Winfrey sit behind a large, white desk–something that looks like it was left over from a Reach For The Top taping–batting around the topics of the day with three or four whobodies. It is all part of what they call Oprah Live Fridays in Chicago, and it blows.
Sitting in those big white chairs with Oprah are her constant companion and best friend, Gayle King, Kelly Ripa’s hubby and token male Mark Consuelos and Ali Wentworth, who I had to Google. She’s a stand up comedian and married to ABC News dude George Stephanopoulos. According to Wikipedia, she does a killer imitation of Audrey Meadows. She might be best known for being Jerry’s blond girlfriend in the soup Nazi episode of Seinfeld.
Sorry, but Oprah has surrounded herself with stiffs. If only the Soup Nazi was at Oprah’s table instead. “No Book of the Month for You!”
I guess the plan is to have four girlfriends (Consuelos barely registers) sit around gabbing on the news of the day. But hey–isn’t that The View? And does Wentworth have to work so hard to sound like Joy Bahar?
I’ve watched this new Friday format things twice and was dumbfounded both times. It is supremely un-entertaining and just looks cheap–the opposite of any other Oprah show I’ve ever watched. Oprah should not look like it could be cobbled together by the folks at Rogers’ Brampton community cable programming.
Both form and content seem to diminish Winfrey. Remember how Stephen Harper seemed less prime ministerial sitting around that debate table with the likes of Elizabeth May and Jack Layton? That kind of thing.
What sets it apart, of course, are the high level guests. Today, Oprah’s got Melissa Etheridge on, all fired up about that California proposition banning same sex marriages. Look for her to be really challenged on that.
I guess it works depending on how hot and sexy the guest is. Check out this Oprah Live Friday teaser featuring Esquire’s “sexiest woman alive” Halle Berry; it looks great (complete with stirring, Amazing Race-like music), but it shows you no hint of the dull panel format:

The weeks I watched Oprah Live Fridays Chris Rock and Ben Stiller sat in to promote their new Madagascar cartoon, a movie where Oprah has a voice over role. Stiller was all but invisible; Rock pretty much hijacked the hour but even that didn’t help. I watched last week, too, but can’t for the life of me remember who the guest even was. (Okay, now I remember–Stephanopoulos. He was up on a computer screen in an obvious Skype.com promotional tie-in, leaving viewers to stare at a dull guy on a dull screen. Again, very community 10 cable, not at all Queen of Daytime-worthy.)
So, what, people are tired of seeing Tom Cruise jump around on sofas? What happened to “You got a car! You got a car!” Why is Oprah copying anyone else’s format, let along The View?
The reason is that the show is slipping in the ratings. A lot was written last spring when Winfrey seemed to pay a price for her endorsement of president-elect Barack Obama. Her overall ratings slid 7% last season, but so did everybody elses. Still, something else seemed to be going on. By August, a CBS poll had found that her favorable rating–once ahead of Mother Teresa’s–had dropped from 74% to 51%. An AOL TV poll found that more viewers would rather have dinner with Ellen DeGeneres than Oprah–a flip from previous results. Her spin off magazine, “O at Home,” just folded. For the first time, critics are writing about “Oprah fatique.”
What are we so tired of? There are many theories. Some have suggested she has simply endorsed too many crappy, poorly-written books, that her female fan base felt betrayed when Oprah endorsed Obama over Hillary Clinton, that her embrace of new age religion and sappy solutions like “The Secret” turned off traditional supporters as well as people who think.
My theory: her show is boring! Worse, she looks bored as hell, and this lame, derivative Friday gimmick is so not helping.
So why copy The View? Because The View is soaring. It has stolen Oprah’s buzz.
The View, according to Marc Berman over at Mediaweek’s Programming Insider, is dominant in daytime, ranking first there among women 18-49. The recent U.S. election, which brought guests like Michelle Obama, helped nudge its numbers ever higher. Last Wednesday, the day after the election, it hit an all time high with 6.17 million daytime viewers.
That is higher than anything on The CW in prime time and a lot on in the evenings on Fox and NBC. Oprah, of course, is not going away anytime soon. Eyebrows were raised a week ago when it was suggested she might be ready to leave broadcast TV. Her syndication deal runs through till 2011, and after that, she might move over to the new premium channel OWN, a.k.a. the Oprah Winfrey Network.
This would be a little like what happened to Howard Stern when he left terrestrial radio broadcasting and switched to satellite radio. Big money, way fewer listeners, a lot less influence.
There have been subsequent suggestions that Winfrey might continue to do both her syndicated show and an OWN show after 2011. She has flirted with scaling back before. All I know is, if she keeps doing this cheap-ass Oprah Live Friday thing, for the first time ever, her audience might be ready to let her go.

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