As most commentators have observed, Oprah Winfrey is quitting while she is ahead. A wise decision, but more can be said about her move. As a shrewd businesswoman, she is leaving when free broadcast television has begun a serious decline in viewership and profitability.
Winfrey has demonstrated her business sense throughout her career. David Carr itemized her businesslike decisions in the New York Times, revealing she never took her company public and thus retained control; she never put her own brand on merchandise; she didn’t license her name to a magazine but built her own into a big publishing success; and she never tarnished her reputation by misbehavior. And she built a personal net worth estimated by Forbes at more than $2.3 billion.
Now, employing that same business sense, she is moving — with all deliberate speed in two years — to pay-to-watch cable TV, which most sources consider more valuable than the broadcast networks, certainly more valuable than NBC’s, now in fourth place, for all its history of hit programming.
The big four broadcast networks, which now include Fox, always used to produce expensive original programming and pay for it by lucrative advertising and syndicated reruns. Those high-flying good old days are over. The Times reported recently, quoting Nielsen ratings, that NBC’s primetime audience of American television households had dropped from 30 percent in l952-53 to 5.2 percent in 2007-8.
Loss of viewers has meant loss of advertising and loss of revenue has brought changes in programming. The networks often turned to cheap “reality shows” instead of expensive productions. Costly documentaries like those of Edward R. Murrow are long gone. So are the huge worldwide news bureaus that once covered foreign news like a blanket.
The mass audience of broadcast TV, with its star anchors like Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, gave Americans a common background of factual information that helped provide a basis for democratic government.
Both newspapers and network television news have lost customers, but a funny thing has happened in the way these decreases are reported. A University of Pennsylvania study last spring found many newspaper stories about declining news audiences in both media, while national television news shows had little to say about television’s rating problems. The study reported that broadcast networks’ evening news shows had lost audience more rapidly than printed newspapers — to 23 million people now from 32 million in 2000, while the audience for primetime cable news had roughly tripled, to about 4 million. In the same period, newspaper sales dropped to about 47 million a day from 56 million.
The TV audience has been splintering into a multitude of cable channels, with many of them putting out their own particular political and cultural biases. Viewers increasingly seek out channels that match their own biases.
Oprah Winfrey, in switching to cable, will be entering a segmented medium with many choices but leaving behind a medium that offers fewer choices but once gave us a common background in news and information.