A few years ago—OK, more than a few—Tom Brokaw and his executive producer, Steve Friedman, had me up in their “Nightly News” offices to share with me an extraordinary memo that had been prepared by Larry McGill, NBC’s manager, news and audience research for the president of NBC News, Michael Gartner.
The year was 1992, and the research McGill had done was on something he dubbed the "Oprah Effect"—that is, the effect of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on the ratings of the evening national newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC.
Of course, except in a few markets, “Oprah” was NOT the lead-in to the national news. As it still is, "Oprah" is primarly the lead-in to a station’s local newscast. The national newscasts are on AFTER the local newscasts.
With Winfrey’s announcement that she is leaving her syndicated show in September, 2011, I decided to ask what ABC currently thought of the Oprah Effect. The answer startled me, and I think it will surprise you as well.
First, I was able to dig up the original piece I wrote when I was reporting for “Inside Media.” Here is that piece, which appeared in the April 15, 1992 issue:
Quick: What woman is singlehandedly responsible for ABC’s “World News Tonight’s” No. 1 ranking in the ratings, and “NBC Nightly News’” third place showing?
Here’s a hint: She’s in Chicago.
The answer is Oprah Winfrey. “The Oprah effect, more than anything else, appears to be responsible for the strong showing of ‘ABC World News Tonight With Peter Jennings,’ according to a March 20 internal NBC memo sent by Larry McGill, manager, news and audience research, to NBC news president Michael Gartner.
What McGill is writing about is the large audience “The Oprah Winfrey Show” delivers to the local newscasts that follow her show, and the carry-over of that audience to the half-hour network newscasts that follow the local news.
The memo states that each household watching Oprah equals one household for the network newscast: some 5.7 million homes every weeknight. That’s bad news for CBS and worse news for NBC, because in the top 25 TV markets, Oprah is on 14 ABC affiliates (including the owned and operated station), seven CBS stations and only three NBC outlets.
“It is sobering to realize,” McGill concludes in the memo, “that if NBC had Oprah in just New York and Philadelphia, and could thereby swap Nightly’s lead-in with "World News Tonight’s’ lead-in, ‘Nightly News’ would be tied with "World News Tonight’ in the ratings."
The Oprah effect has dollar and cents consequences. The difference in annual gross ad billings between the ABC and NBC nightly newscasts is about $15 million, sources estimate. Season-to-date, “World News Tonght” has delivered a 5.6 Nielsen rating in women 25-54, and 4.8 in men 25-54.
Comparatively, NBC’s news checks in with a 4.9 in the women demo, and a 4.2 in the men category.
Jennings pulls a 21 share of the total audience; Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather control 18% each.
The Oprah effect, combined with the fact that about 60% of the stations that have Oprah also have the popular “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy,” to lead out of the network newscasts, is a double –whammy that gnaws at Gartner, Brokaw and Steve Friedman, Brokaw’s executive producer.
“What it does is make you shoot yourself in the head and say, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’ or “What are we going to do about this?’ says Friedman.#
The remainder of the article was about what NBC was planning to do about it, such as pump the news a lot during the Olympics.
Three years later, when there were a lot of stations switching affiliations, I checked in again to examine the Oprah Effect. After the dust settled it appeared that the Oprah Effect on the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC was still true and that all the affiliation changes were basically a wash.
So here we are 17 years after I wrote the original article on the Oprah Effect. Now, NBC is in first place, ABC is in second place, and CBS is in third place.
And the season-to-date ratings are NBC, a 2.1 in adults 25-54; ABC a 1.8 in adults 25-54, and CBS a 1.4 in adults 25-54.
One of the big questions with Oprah’s departure in 2011 is this: If any part of the Oprah Effect is still working, will that mean ABC’s “World News” could expect a hit when her show goes off the air?
Jon Banner, the executive producer of “World News,” does not think so. I spoke to Banner last week, before I had dug up my old article, but I was able to give him on outline of the old NBC Oprah Effect memo.
Banner had heard the theory before. “I think the idea that Oprah had some big effect on the evening news audience an hour and a half after she went off the air is one of the biggest myths in television.”
He elaborated: “I think there is no one as big a star as Oprah, and I think she’s an institution and has come to come to define the power and value of broadcast television. So I think we’re all going to be very sad to see her go.
“But her departure says more about the current state of media and broadcast television perhaps than whether or not people are going to stay through an hour and a half local news to watch an evening news program. She’s only on in the afternoon in our markets in 47% of the country. And I think a lead-in to a lead-in is always very difficult to figure out the effect of the audience. And her audience make-up is quite different than ours. During the hour and a half some people come to the TV, some go away. So the audience mix certainly changes over that hour and a half.”
Here was Banner’s final thoughts on the matter: “ So I think [the Oprah Effect] was a myth then and continues to be pushed by various people. We did some real hard research on this to try to determine if this was the case, because we’d like to know.”
But, he said, his research came up empty.
I disagree. My gut tells me that McGill was right 17 years ago, and that the Oprah Effect on the national newscasts was real. There really was a funnel effect back then.
The question is how much of that remains. I think some of it does. How much? We’ll find out in September, 2011.#