Katie Couric, Steve Harvey, Ricki Lake and Jeff Probst: The Search for the Next Oprah (INSIDE STORY)

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Two lessons of the daytime TV arena, now that undisputed all-time champ Oprah Winfrey has retired her jersey after 25 years: First, it takes a rare talent to attract and maintain the loyalty of daytime audiences as she did. Second, the stakes are enormous, so a lot of people want to try.

That explains the everybody-into-the-pool approach that the networks and syndicators have taken this fall, with no fewer than five contenders introducing new daytime shows this month. (And at least three more are on the way in the months to come). Some are better known than others, some have more relevant experience than others, but all have backers who are betting millions that they can capture at least some of Winfrey's old audience and reap an advertising windfall.

Of course, not all of them can; indeed, two years from now, most (maybe all) of these shows will have been canceled. Already, the ratings battle between Katie Couric (the highest-profile of the new launches) and Steve Harvey (the only one whose new show has already been spoofed on Saturday Night Live) has seen dramatic shifts, and the season is less than two weeks old. Still, it's possible that one of the five newcomers -- Couric, Harvey, Ricki Lake, Jeff Probst, and Trisha Goddard -- can be the next Oprah. Or perhaps none of them can, either because the title already belongs to someone else, or because no one can.

Here's our breakdown of the increasingly crowded daytime melee.

Each of the five new shows comes with its own dramatic backstory. Can Couric (along with her producer, successful Today showrunner-turned-failed NBC programming chief Jeff Zucker) recapture her former daytime glory? Can Harvey successfully juggle a talk show along with his many other gigs (morning radio show, stand-up comedy, bestselling author, host of Family Feud)? Can Lake, who had a successful talk show for 11 years but left the field in 2004, match her former success? Can Survivor host Probst bring his rugged, outdoorsy appeal to a daytime couch? Can British import Goddard gain a foothold in America? And can her specialty, which is conflict resolution,remind viewers more of of the holistic Oprah than such chair-tossing sideshows as Maury and The Jerry Springer Show?

There's a lot riding on the answers to those questions. ABC has spent a reported $40 million (some say $80 million) to launch Katie and bumped venerable soap General Hospital up an hour to make room for it. CBS spent $30 million on The Jeff Probst Show, including construction of a studio with a  camera-equipped "party room" where the audience can enjoy refreshments and massages before the show. NBC and syndicator Endemol have spent $25 million to get Steve Harvey up and running. And Ricki Lake's show seems a relative bargain for Fox, with a launch cost of just $20 million.

At stake is an audience of home viewers aged 25 to 54 who are 80 percent women. It's a viewership that grows ever smaller as the number of work-at-home housewives dwindles and other distractions (the Internet, e-readers, proliferating cable channels) increase. In Winfrey's prime, she was able to monetize that audience to the tune of $300 million a year, not counting the proceeds from her non-TV media empire. No one is earning that kind of money now, though some veteran shows still gross nine figures.

So, who among the newcomers is winning the race? Early ratings tell a conflicting story. Couric started out strongest, though her ratings had already begun to slump by the end of her first week. Harvey, on the other hand, began to pull ahead among women viewers aged 25- 54, coming on strong enough to boost the ratings of Ellen, which follows his show. Meanwhile, Probst's ratings are so low that, according to the New York Post, reps for Queen Latifah (who is planning to return to the talk show arena next year) are already reaching out to local stations in the hopes of poaching Probst's timeslot if he goes under. (The tribe has spoken.)

Still, even if three or four of these new shows fail, the survivor isn't necessarily going to be the next Oprah. "There can be no next Oprah, those days are gone," Denver Post TV critic Joanne Ostrow told Celebuzz. Not just because the audience is smaller, but also because there's already a new Oprah..

"The reigning queen of daytime is Ellen [DeGeneres], and she's doing as well as anyone can in this increasingly fragmented media universe," Ostrow said.

Now in its tenth season, Ellen DeGeneres' show earns a reported $100 million a year. She could be considered the new Oprah in terms of longevity, household name-recognition, and positive vibes. Or maybe the new Oprah is Wiinfrey protege Dr. Phil McGraw, whose 11-year-old show is the most popular in raw numbers and is even more profitable than Ellen (at $150 million a year). In terms of sheer profit, the new Oprah is Judge Judy, a show that earns $200 million a year, including $50 million for the judge herself, Judy Sheindlin. Like other courtroom shows, hers is dirt cheap to produce, and it does well in reruns since it's not tied to current events.

Of course, there are plenty of other rising contenders. There's Winfrey's other successful protege, Dr. Oz. There's Wendy Williams, who's starting her fourth season of celebrity gossip. There's Anderson Cooper, who has totally revamped his show in just his second season. There's Michael Strahan, who in just a couple of weeks has brought renewed life to new partner Kelly Ripa's on Live!, which went for nearly a year without a cohost after Regis Philbin left. And there's all the panel shows, game shows, and other syndicated fare, all chasing the same pool of money.

Even if that pool is shrinking, it's still big enough for a handful of hosts to get rich, if not Oprah-rich.

"The syndication game is about making money, not rising to the level of Oprah-esque dominance with books, magazines and the rest of the media empire," Ostrow said. "And it's possible to make good money with a smaller audience than once tuned in during the daytime hours."

Which is good, because there are still more new hosts yet to come. Due in October is Marie Osmond's chatfest on the Hallmark Channel. Former Real Housewife of New York Bethenny Frankel has a show in the works, due back on the air soon after a successful summer tryout in six markets. And of course, Queen Latifah  is circling the runway and waiting for clearance to land. If none of these hosts becomes the next Oprah, it won't be for lack of trying.

Who do you think can or already does fill Winfrey's shoes?

 

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