Judge Judy in ascent, leaving a media empress, Oprah Winfrey, behind in the ratings

She who once ruled daytime has been dethroned — by Judge Judy, or just by changing times?

Is the Queen of Daytime dead?

As The Oprah Winfrey Show heads into its farewell season this fall, its summer ratings have plunged steeply. The 56-year-old host averaged a rating of just 2.9 at the beginning of July — she had never fallen below 3.0 before in her remarkable 24-year-run on daytime television. Though she inched up again at the end of the month, she was still down 21 per cent from her average this time last year — and she’s being clobbered in her time slot.

Oprah is waiting to launch her own cable channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network, in January, featuring shows by the likes of Rosie O’Donnell. Is the star simply entering a lame-duck period before her network takes off? Or is there something rotten in Oprah’s empire?

“If you look at the cycles in Americian television, with anyone who reaches 20-plus years, a fatigue sets in,” says Ron Simon, curator of television and radio with the U.S. Paley Center for Media, who figured she would see a jump in her final weeks. “We just experienced that with Law & Order that just went off the air.”

Other TV critics aren’t so sure. Oprah’s talent was making people feel as if their voices and their struggles were somehow being heard, says Jeff Jarvis, author, blogger and journalism professor at the City University of New York.

Now, social media satisfies our need to connect more than a TV show ever could, he says — echoing remarks made by Meetup.com founder Scott Heiferman this week.

“Part of this is, we don’t need Oprah,” Jarvis says. “If it’s human connection we crave, we can get plenty of it ourselves on Facebook.”

Oprah has struggled to maintain a compelling online presence, unlike other celebrities. “She is a creature of broadcast,” says Jarvis. “The connection that she understands with people is one that is mediated by the camera.

“You’ve got to understand the power of the public in a whole new way. She doesn’t do that, she tells you how to run your life.”

Her image has also suffered when the internet has let her audience give feedback. Witness the recent flap over Zach Anner, a young man with cerebral palsy whose charismatic bid to win his own show on Oprah’s OWN channel looked to be winning, until it was suddenly and strangely quashed on her website.

Hundreds of thousands of internet users, musician John Mayer among them, came out in Anner’s support. A meme was born: “Oprah Hates the Handicapped.”

Others say her empire — O magazine, protegés like Dr. Phil and Rachael Ray — has eclipsed her. “When does the brand ‘Oprah’ supersede the person ‘Oprah’?” says William J. Moner, an editor of University of Texas at Austin’s journal of television studies, Flow. “Is this person strictly commercial, or can she truly connect with an audience the way she did before?”

For someone who often acts as an arbiter of ethics and authenticity, Oprah may also have been duped once too often by guests with hidden agendas — from fake memoirist James Frey to Herman Rosenblatt, who fabricated a Holocaust story. Could she be losing her credibility?

Jarvis says she never had any. “This whole movement on TV of trashy people making horrendous confessionals just so they can get on TV, which later became synonymous with Jerry Springer, Oprah started. When others started doing it and went far farther, for whatever reason, she pulled back. The new Oprah was this kind of saviour of the world.”

Oprah’s obsession with “real” problems arguably also made her a forerunner of reality TV, says Jarvis — ironically, since she’s now been surpassed in the ratings by Judge Judy, which airs in the same time slot as Winfrey’s show in many markets including Toronto.

Judge Judy is much more reflecting of the cable networks, the much more opinionated, in-your-face kind of thing,” Simon says. “That’s part of reality culture. (Oprah’s) style is not in vogue right now.”

Another theory is that Oprah has gotten too divisive after endorsing (and leveraging her fanbase for) Barack Obama in 2008 — possibly alienating rural, Republican voters.

“She’s part of the red and blue debate in this country,” says Simon.

Certainly, Oprah and other TV stars have lost their captive audience to the endless niche choices of the internet and cable. Where there are fewer competitors (such as Saudi Arabia, where she has exploded in popularity in recent years) her hold’s still unparalleled.

“Is she also the last big broadcast star?” says Jarvis. “There is so much choice and so much abundance, no one is going to stand out.

“There’ll never be another Oprah. There’ll never be another personality across that kind of audience because they’ll never be a collective audience that large again.”