Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
December 6th, 2009

Ed Sullivan Oprah Winfrey

In the early 1970s, when I was first really getting into jazz, I heard one of those glib statements that stuck with me.  “The history of the jazz trumpet can be written in four words:  Louis Armstrong Miles Davis”  Now this obviously is not true as there have been dozens of great jazz trumpeters, but in a way it distilled the history of something down to two iconic figures.

The history of broadcast television in the U.S. can and will be distilled down to the same:  Ed Sullivan Oprah Winfrey.

The Ed Sullivan show was on from 1948 – 1971, was almost always live, created the concept of the Sunday night viewing experience, was and still is the definitive variety show in the history of television and basically stood astride  the first 23 years of broadcast television in the U.S.  The Oprah Winfrey show has now been on a little more than 23 years, (interesting irony don’t you think)  has been the definition of ultimate success of a talk show and a syndication show and has shaped, more than any other show, the culture of the U.S.

[Please understand that as a student of the medium I know of all the titans of the television medium, from Berle, Gleason, Lucy, the Cartwright family, Rod Serling, Star Trek to Norman Lear, Cosby, the Simpsons and Law and Order.  This is not unlike all those wonderful jazz trumpeters.]

Sullivan and Winfrey bracket the history of broadcast television in the U.S.  Sullivan was the longest running, dominant figure at the beginning and Winfrey the same at the end.  Yes, the end.  When, in 2025, media historians write about the broadcast television business, they will point to Oprah’s exit as the real end of the business.  Yes there will be a business of broadcast after her exit in 11/2011, but it will be its’ twilight.

Oprah said that 25 years feels right to her, and who can challenge her instincts and feelings as they have proven unswervingly correct.  This observer thinks that she is astute enough to realize that the business over which she has ruled these past 23 years is, indeed, in a rapid dénouement.

[Some of you reading this column know that 16 years ago, along with my good friend Jack Myers, we created a company, TPP, that suggested to advertisers, networks and agencies that the broadcast networks would soon decline to a less than %50 share of primetime viewing and would then rapidly decline to less than %40, which is where it is today.  We strongly recommended to them that they therefore needed to create a new model of doing business.  Except for a couple of visionaries, most executives of the day told us we were wrong. Jack and I are futurists and try to see clearly what lies ahead; that is what we do.  Broadcast executives historically don’t see beyond the next season.  This is just to state for the record that as futurists it was pretty clear 15 years ago that the broadcast business would be where it is today.]

Ed Sullivan and Oprah Winfrey respectfully influenced American culture.  Sullivan introduced the larger culture to Elvis, the Beatles, Marcel Marceau and to numerous comedians who became big stars.  He was the successful launch platform of culture.  Winfrey launched the Book Club, successful talk shows, innumerable products and to a large degree Barack Obama.  More than any other two television stars they influenced our cultural zeitgeist.  They defined the powerful platform of broadcast television to expand and alter our country’s culture.

See Oprah’s coming exit for what it is, the end of the cultural impact of broadcast television.  It will exist but with a bunch of qualifiers.  If Ed Sullivan was alive today he would look at it and find it wholly unrecognizable.

Oprah Winfrey is moving to cable in some new program iteration.  It won’t be “The Oprah Winfrey Show” as that is a broadcast product.  She will find the right program(s) for the cable medium.  She clearly understands that as a 50% owner of a cable network, she can create wealth and success in that medium and once again be seen as a cultural iconic figure redefining a medium.

All the media coverage of Oprah’s exit from broadcast is about cable’s dual revenue streams and its profitability and superiority to broadcast as a business model. As a comparative conversation that is valid.  That said, cable television is mature and is about to enter a long slow period of decline.

This futurist has a forecast that you can file away for 15 years.  When the above mentioned media historians of 2025 write about cable television, they will write that Oprah Winfrey’s exit from that medium sometime in the time frame of  2015-2020, signaled the end of the significance of the medium.  She will be the overarching television personality to end not one but two television mediums.

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In times of global uncertainty and disruption it takes a futurist to provide context and understanding.

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