Jane Pauley to Go Head-to-Head With Oprah

There may never be another Oprah (search), but that isn't stopping Jane Pauley (search).

For as long as many people can remember, Oprah has stood astride daytime TV like a giant, withstanding every challenge.

So what is it that Pauley -- and her backer, NBC -- know that the rest of us don't?

NBC announced last week that it was launching a new afternoon talk show starring Pauley aimed at the same hour Oprah has dominated since the Reagan years, that crucial hour before the evening news begins.

It is an audacious plan, and one that will be as closely watched as the Letterman-Leno wars.

It will be an epic fight.

"Oprah has no weakness," says ABC's Good Morning America boss Shelley Ross, who knows something about daytime TV.

"It doesn't matter if she's been on for 17 years or not. She's unstoppable and she will decide when she'll turn the lights out," says Ross.

While the ratings for Oprah have fallen significantly from their dizziest heights -- her biggest season was 1991-1992 when about 13.1 million viewers were watching each day -- she is still millions ahead of her nearest competitor.

And she owns that show too.

Roughly 7.4 million viewers a day are watching her now compared the No. 2 daytime talk show, the Oprah-launched Dr. Phil which is averaging about 5.8 million viewers.

Others have tried to take on Oprah.

Even Jerry Springer (search), spent one exceptionally brief season in the 1990s beating Oprah in the ratings race before his studio's boss, media mogul Barry Diller (search), ordered him to tone down the show's worst excesses.

After Springer stopped showing guests battling on stage, his ratings dropped back to earth, where they have remained ever since.

There even seemed to be a moment last fall when Dr. Phil, who had the best-rated debut season on afternoon TV since, yes, Oprah, might rocket past her.

But TV stations that air his show are forbidden by contract to air it opposite Oprah.

No matter, no other show on TV seems to generate the action and excitement she does.

Entire studio audiences are whisked off to remote locations. If that day's show is about, say, a $1,000 pair of sunglasses, everyone gets a pair.

"She's America's best friend and their psychologist," says Dr. Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Oprah Winfrey is the next door neighbor everybody dreams of having."

It's that neighborly spirit that's had TV programmers searching years to find someone to mirror Oprah's success by either mimicking her or sniffing out some chink in the armor to take advantage of.

Still, Pauley, whose show is set to debut in fall 2004, represents the biggest name ever to go up against the Queen.

She has the resume and more depth of goodwill than anyone who has ever tried to create a show to compete for viewers at the critical 4 o'clock hour - when daytime TV viewership is highest.

"Syndicators tend to be derivative and Oprah is the buzz word that they want to use," sighs Ross.

"They shouldn't be looking for the next Oprah," says Mediaweek Online's TV industry analyst Marc Berman. "They should be looking for something unique that hasn't been on the air yet.

"You cannot do another Oprah, there's only one," he says.