King World Treasures Its Crown Jewel

Apr 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Twenty years ago, when Oprah Winfrey became the host of “AM Chicago” on WLS-TV and promptly attracted more audience than longtime daytime ratings leader Phil Donahue in head-to-head competition, it was apparent that she would have a shot to go national.
There were many suitors offering to take her there, but Ms. Winfrey chose King World Productions and their fortunes have risen together ever since. When the news hit Wall Street that she signed a contract extension in 1995, King World’s stock rose $3.75 per share.

“We’ve done right by her and she’s done right by us,” said Roger King, CEO of CBS Enterprises and King World, who will be inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame during the NAB convention the same day Ms. Winfrey receives the NAB’s Distinguished Service Award.
“Her [Nielsen] ratings are higher now than they were eight to 10 years ago,” Mr. King said. “We don’t have to do a different marketing campaign every year to sell her. She has always been one to keep the eye of the tiger.”
Back in 1984 King World might have been called the savior of WLS-TV, the ABC owned-and-operated station in Chicago. The station had been deeply mired in third place in 1983, when Dennis Swanson became VP and general manager. Mr. Swanson bought “Wheel of Fortune” from King World and began airing it Jan. 1, 1984. He then bought “Jeopardy!” and put that on in September.
Those two game shows combined with the locally developed and produced morning talk show hosted by Ms. Winfrey, an import from Baltimore, to catapult WLS to the top spot in the market.
“We had sold our game shows to Dennis and so were doing a lot of business with the station,” Mr. King said. “He brought Oprah to our attention, telling us we had to look at her. People talk now about how she was a woman, and her color, and the other things and think it was some big thing that we launched her nationally. The truth is the way she talked to people as a person, the way she, as I always say, jumped through the camera-that was all that mattered.”
It didn’t hurt that she was beating Mr. Donahue’s long-running program in Chicago. But King World decided to hold off launching Ms. Winfrey’s show until the 1986-87 season, after she was expected to draw national attention as a co-star of the motion picture “The Color Purple.”
An Easy Sell
Mr. King now says Ms. Winfrey was an easy sell in morning time periods, though to sell her to stations where the only openings were in afternoon time slots “took more money for marketing than we were bringing in from sales to those stations-and Los Angeles [KABC-TV] was one of them.”
Roger King and his brother Michael King, the company’s primary owner-operators at the time, did not leave the decision to put a then-plump black woman on the air to the station managers, most of whom were white males over the age of 50. In most markets, when the Kings screened their tape of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” they insisted that secretaries and other women in the station offices be invited into the room.
“Oprah” went on the air on 130 stations and is now on 214, representing a 99.87 percent market penetration. Industry estimates indicate the show’s revenues were $125 million for its first season. Cumulative revenues are now certainly in the multiple billions. Ms. Winfrey’s current contract runs through the 2007-08 season.
“Oprah worked her butt off to get that show going,” Roger King said. “She would do the show in Chicago, then fly to Cleveland to do promos. The next day she would do the show, then fly to Detroit to do promos. No sacrifice was too great for her.
“We still have a great relationship,” Mr. King said. “We speak on the phone frequently but never about what should be on the show. I wouldn’t embarrass myself by telling her how to produce her show, and she still has confidence in us to sell it.”