SINCE talkshow host Oprah Winfrey packed up the couch that Tom Cruise jumped on and ended her daytime talk show last year, no one has truly filled her role as the top go-to TV person for major celebrity and news interviews.
Faced with the potential failure of her money-pit cable network OWN, Winfrey is working the phones hard to secure big-name interviews for her show, Oprah's Next Chapter.
Back-to-back episodes last Sunday featured the Kardashian family and rapper 50Cent, and the Kardashians will be back this weekend.
Michael Jackson's daughter Paris and the late Whitney Houston's family made news with their interviews in recent weeks.
The open question is whether she can have the same cultural impact on a smaller stage.
Winfrey's daytime talk show was generally seen by about 6million people in her final years, while Oprah's Next Chapter with the Kardashians was seen by 1,1million viewers, according to the Nielsen company.
"I'm sure people have a conversation about that when they are exploring their options," says Sheri Salata, OWN president.
"The one constant we have ... is that you have the opportunity to sit down with Oprah."
Winfrey's daytime show wasn't all about interviews, of course.
But in her last few seasons she sat down for conversations with the likes of Tina Fey, Elizabeth Edwards, Michelle Obama, Madonna, Denzel Washington, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Branson and Beyoncé.
The audience was primarily women but, as Cruise proved with his eager declarations of love for Katie Holmes in 2005, the cultural impact could spread beyond the afternoon.
"Doing an interview on one of those shows was like Johnny Carson asking you to come and sit with him after you've done your stand-up," says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
"If there was any equivalent to playing the Palace at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries, being on Oprah might have been it."
While Thompson said that "half the people can't find OWN on their cable TV", that may underestimate Winfrey.
The Oprah's Next Chapter episode with Houston's family in March premiered to 3,5 million people, Nielsen says.
Many others heard about it or saw clips.
Winfrey's presence in daytime television was a mixed blessing for veteran Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman.
Most of his clients wanted to be on Oprah and were convinced they had a story she wanted to hear.
When they did, it was great.
When they didn't, not so great.
"It was a ton of pressure," he says, "and there's a part of me that is happy the pressure has lifted."
Now he can suggest a media strategy with interviewers who can reach his clients' target audiences.
Bragman often goes retro, preferring the news divisions at broadcast television networks.
Ellen DeGeneres is probably the leading personality in daytime now, but her show is about entertainment.
Dr Phil and Anderson Cooper get some interviews, as does The View and The Talk.
But none has the impact that Winfrey had on a consistent basis, says Bill Carroll, an expert in the syndication market for Katz Media.
Also missing from the scene is CNN's Larry King, who didn't have the same juice as Winfrey, but he had a friendly reputation that made him a popular stop for people with hard stories to tell.
King's replacement, Piers Morgan, is not as established and is dragged down by CNN's ratings problems.
Katie Couric, whose daytime talk show starts in the American autumn this year (SA's spring), could be Winfrey's true heir as an interviewer in daytime.
Her lengthy tenure at NBC's Today show makes her able to deftly switch from world leaders to actors to quirky celebrities enjoying 15 minutes of fame.
"Not many people can do that," Bragman says.
First things first, however.
Couric still needs to build a show and prove that people want to watch her.
This will give Oprah time to regroup.
Establishing booking superiority before Couric starts could benefit her.
By DAVID BAUDER