Next On Oprah: Burned Out Talk Show Hosts?

Many in the audience had arrived three hours before the 9 a.m. talk show began and were in a stomping, cheering frenzy when Oprah Winfrey strode onstage to begin her interview with Hollywood's Penny and Garry Marshall. She kept the show moving quickly and left many in the packed crowd atwitter at their brush with a talk TV icon.

Relaxing later, her feet up on a coffee table, Winfrey reflected on what an "inspiring diversion" the talk show was from her earlier ambition to become a film star. Still, she allowed as how the two-a-day, 200-a-year tapings of The Oprah Winfrey Show are now wearing her down. "I just don't have the time to do all of the other things I want."

After 10 years atop the talk show heap, Oprah, at 41, is mulling a midlife career change. By Oct. 6, she must decide whether to exercise an option in her syndication contract that would make this the final year for the daytime show viewed by 15 million people in 119 countries. "I waver day-to-day," she says. The show is worth some $75 million a year in revenues to her Harpo Entertainment Group. But Winfrey quickly adds: "This is not about money. I would like to feel I could have an impact on people's lives in a broader venue."

MARRY A GIANT? In fact, Oprah and her senior advisors are plotting a broad strategy to extend her wildly popular "brand name" across a wide range of media, playing to the growing appetite of emerging conglomerates for new products. The idea: to take Oprah Inc. into everything from movies and TV interview programs to fitness videos and online services, betting that her marquee name can translate into a series of hits.

Another possibility: linking Harpo's studio, fledgling film company, and library of more than 2,000 tapes with one of the new media giants--though no formal discussions have taken place. "Oprah is worth more and more...every day," says Richard Frank, the former chief of Walt Disney Co.'s TV operations who recently joined Comcast Corp. to take its cable operations into programming.

Oprah may be picking just the right time should she bail out of daytime TV. Although still far and away the leader, her show's average rating has slipped to 8 from a peak of 10.5 in 1991-92, according to Nielsen Media Research. New talkfests such as Jenny Jones and Ricki Lake, plus competition from the O.J. Simpson trial and Oprah's decision a year ago to abandon the seamier side of chat--all have conspired to drive viewers away.

Winfrey insists the ratings slide will have nothing to do with any decision to drop the show. There's no question, though, that a lot of money rests on the outcome. The loss of Oprah would wipe out about 40% of syndicator King World Productions Inc.'s revenues. Winfrey holds 1.5 million of King World stock options, worth $40 million, with the right to as many as one million more. That may lead her to develop another King World series.

Executives at Capital Cities/ABC Inc. are similarly anxious. The Oprah Winfrey Show has long been a key lead-in to local news shows for the many ABC affiliates that run the program in late afternoon. That, in turn, helps boost the network's ABC World News Tonight program. True, the show is pricey: Fees charged in some markets for broadcast rights rose by 20% to 100% under Winfrey's 1994 contract with King World. Still, "the absence of Oprah on a daily basis would be profound," says Robert A. Iger, president of Cap Cities.

Whether she extends the show or not, Winfrey has plans to venture into new programming arenas, particularly lucrative prime-time ones. And she's hoping to pursue more acting opportunities. "Ever since I was 19, I wanted to be an actress," she says. Her fledgling film company has the rights or options to nine books, including Toni Morrison's Pulitzer-winning Beloved.

There's plenty of interest in Winfrey's far-flung plans. Before Turner Broadcasting System Inc.'s proposed purchase of King World collapsed, its executives mused with Harpo officials over what Scott Sassa, president of Turner Entertainment Group, describes as "the virtual Oprah"--a brand that could be pushed into everything from a woman's TV network to CD-ROM cookbooks. Winfrey already is building on her relationship with ABC, with which she recently signed a deal to produce or star in six TV films. A prime-time interview show on ABC also is possible. And on Oct. 2, the two will co-underwrite the debut of Oprah Online on America Online.

Away from the media bright lights, Oprah is "trying to stay grounded in reality." She's committing at least $3 million to help 100 Chicago inner-city families leave their housing projects for new jobs and new homes. That's the sort of pursuit that increasingly gets her attention. The question: How much longer before she is distracted completely from daytime talk?

In the Boardroom With Oprah

Future plans of Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Entertainment Group:

TELEVISION By Oct. 6, Winfrey must decide whether to extend The Oprah Winfrey Show for an 11th year. She's interested in a prime-time network interview show and in May signed a six-picture, made-for-TV production deal with ABC.

CABLE Winfrey may use her 2,200 hours of shows as the core of a talk-show channel.

VIDEOS The born-again health nut is considering a line of fitness videos.

FILMS Winfrey has rights or options on nine books she wants to turn into films. She may act in some of them.

ONLINE Oprah Online debuts Oct. 2 on America Online in partnership with ABC.