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Oprah may be tough act to follow, even for Ellen

Ellen DeGeneres was in Boston yesterday to promote her switch to the 4 p.m. time slot on WCVB-TV, formerly held by Oprah Winfrey. Ellen DeGeneres was in Boston yesterday to promote her switch to the 4 p.m. time slot on WCVB-TV, formerly held by Oprah Winfrey. (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)
By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / August 11, 2011

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Can talk show host Ellen DeGeneres measure up to Oprah Winfrey in Boston?

On Aug. 22, DeGeneres will replace Winfrey on WCVB-TV (Channel 5), moving her talk show from 9 a.m. to Winfrey’s 4 p.m. time slot. The question is whether she can hold on to Oprah’s audience.

There’s a lot at stake for WCVB, which sets its advertising rates according to audience ratings. For 24 years, Winfrey had been not only an afternoon powerhouse, but a strong lead-in program for the station’s 5 p.m. newscast, which has dominated its own time period. On WCVB, Winfrey averaged 127,000 viewers at 4 p.m. this past season.

Even though DeGeneres has been winning her own time slot in Boston, averaging 105,000 viewers at 9 a.m., that’s much less than the numbers Winfrey had.

“I don’t see how [DeGeneres] can possibly live up to Oprah’s numbers,’’ said Steve Safran, a media consultant in Natick. “It’s like replacing David Ortiz with a rookie from Pawtucket.’’

Even so, Safran said, DeGeneres was the best choice. “It’s not surprising that they [WCVB] are doing everything they can in a promotional push. It will be a big win to hold or even come close to Oprah’s numbers.’’

DeGeneres, who was in Boston yesterday to promote the change in time slots, said it will be a challenge to win over Winfrey’s audience.

“Because it’s Oprah’s old time slot, I guess a lot of people will be watching, and then they will figure out slowly that I’m not Oprah,’’ she said. “But hopefully for a little while, they will keep watching, thinking they are watching Oprah and then go, ‘Wait a minute!’ and then I will already have them.’’

Robert Thompson, a TV history professor at Syracuse University, said DeGeneres’s show “seems like a reasonable replacement during that time period. It’s a big deal if it can perform with the legacy status that Oprah had, because [network] affiliates depend on those late-afternoon slots to deliver audiences to their news.’’

In May, during the competitive ratings period before summer, WCVB’s 5 p.m. newscast had 160,000 total viewers, winning the time slot, presumably with the help of the lead-in provided by Winfrey.

WCVB executives hope DeGeneres will not only hold Winfrey’s Boston audience, but expand it among viewers in the 25-to-54 age group, a coveted demographic sought by advertisers. They are looking to DeGeneres to deliver more male viewers from that age group, since Winfrey’s show skewed more toward women.

“Based on her performance and cold, hard research, this was the absolute best show we can choose,’’ said Bill Fine, president and general manager of WCVB, which in November was the first of 26 stations in the country to announce it would fill Winfrey’s slot with DeGeneres. Winfrey retired from her syndicated talk show in May to focus on her cable network, OWN, which was launched in January.

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.