For two decades, Oprah Winfrey has been telling daytime viewers that they're good enough, smart enough and, gosh darn it, people like them. So when she leaves broadcast television next spring, millions of abandoned Americans might storm the self-help sections of their bookstores, start seeing their shrinks five times a week and double down on their Prozac prescriptions.
Or maybe they'll adopt a new TV guru.
Daytime-TV programmers are betting on the final option.
They're recruiting a variety of personalities, including Anderson Cooper and Jenny McCarthy, to take a run at the soon-to-be-empty throne and take advantage of a shift in viewer interest from soap operas to self-help sessions.
CBS got a head start by kicking off "The Talk," an all-star discussion group led by former "Roseanne" star Sara Gilbert and including Sharon Osbourne and Leah Remini ("King of Queens"). The new show, which has an eerie resemblance to ABC's 10-year-old staple "The View," is aimed at overwhelmed mothers concerned about everything from the temperature of their babies' milk bottles to their teenager missing his curfew.
Actress Marissa Jaret Winokur, who will serve as a correspondent on the series, hopes the panel will show viewers that they're not alone.
"My first year with my son was really difficult, really hard. I sat in my bathroom and cried every night," said Winokur, best known for playing the perky-plus Tracy Turnblad in "Hairspray" on Broadway. "I think other moms sitting at home, feeling the same way, will go, 'Wait a second. That's what I feel like. Maybe there's nothing wrong with me and I'm going to come out of this.' "
Mehmet Oz, who recently started the second season of "The Dr. Oz Show," has the same kind of audience member in mind. He's even given her a name: "Shirley," a 40-ish woman who earns $35,000 a year and struggles to make ends meet, not just financially but emotionally.
"Her Marcus Welby is dead," Oz said. "She needs someone to be her go-between. Her intuition is probably on target, but she needs confirmation."
Shirley has long been a typical daytime viewer, but her appetite and expectations have changed. Ten years ago, soaps filled up 8 1/2 hours of the daytime TV schedule. Today, it's 5 1/2 hours. While Shirley was once content to spend time with scheming twin sisters and cloakroom romances, she now wants to see Rachael Ray springing surprise makeovers, Dr. Phil McGraw trying to curb culinary cravings and Nate Berkus designing bedrooms for divorcees.
Winfrey hopes to capitalize on that shift in tastes with her next venture: a cable network that's all about - you guessed it - self-help for women.
Oz believes viewers didn't trust television to offer sound advice for a long period, but came to trust the forum with the rise of "The Oprah Winfrey Show." That show laid the groundwork for many Winfrey wannabes.
Ken Werner, president of Warner Brothers Domestic Television Distribution, said this fall "begins a transition period when long-established franchises are leaving the air and making way for a new generation of shows."
While TV traditionally has turned to celebrities as a source for inspiration the new breed is all about elevating the average viewer.
"We don't think celebrities are valuable in educating the audience," Oz said.
These days the host is the only required star, and audiences are suggesting they're ready for new blood.
Viewership of Winfrey's season premiere, in which she invited her audience to join her in Australia, was down 13 percent from last year's opener, although Winfrey still presides over the No. 1 daytime talk show.
All this helps explain why so many contenders are throwing their hats in the ring.
Former "Nanny" star Fran Drescher is test-driving a daytime talker in six markets. Oz's wife, Lisa, is discussing a show for Sony that would tackle relationship issues. Winfrey, who co-produces Oz, McGraw, Berkus and Ray, may add Jenny McCarthy to her stable. Anderson Cooper has confirmed that he's going to join the daytime fray for CNN.
But the new crop doesn't just have to worry about each other. They also have to deal with the judge. Twenty years ago, the only courtroom open in the daytime was Joseph Wapner's "People's Court." Today, a viewer can witness hours of small-claims squabbles a day.
The reason: These shows are compelling and cheap. A season of "Dr. Oz" costs around $50 million, an astronomical figure compared with what it takes to maintain Judge Judy's fake courtroom.
"Oprah's loss is a big issue," Oz said. "Stations may say that if they can't bring in enough viewers, they'll just do inexpensive programming. The question is whether there will be high-quality programs to pick up the slack."