Time to Talk The Talk -- FinallyA glutted field of syndicated chat shows competes to rule the post-'Oprah' market 1/23/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern
Talk shows will be all the talk this fall, with four new entries— Katie, Steve Harvey, Ricki Lake and Jeff Probst—prepping
to join established shows Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Rachael Ray, The
View and Live! With Kelly and He Who Shall Be Named, as
well as talkers still struggling to secure a foothold: The Talk, The Chew, The Revolution, Anderson Cooper, Jeremy Kyle and Wendy Williams.
Daytime is deeply fragmented, which keeps driving ratings downward, and distributors
universally agree that four new talk shows are at least two more than the
market can bear. And yet, here they all come. Why?
Money, of course.
“As far as the long-term viability, a talk show is
still one of the most pro! table areas to program,”
says John Nogawski, president of CBS Television
Distribution, which is bringing Jeff Probst to daytime
When Oprah Winfrey announced in November
2009 that her long-running, wildly successful talk
show would come to an end in May 2011, the prevailing
wisdom was that syndicators would rush to
market with talk shows for September 2011 to fill
the void. That didn’t happen.
At the time, TV stations were still digging out from
the near-depression of 2008 and were in no place
to spend money on new programs. Many stations
decided to expand their local newscasts instead, a
move that cost them far less than paying for Oprah,
or else swap another show—Ellen, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz—
into their open Oprah slots. Instead of spending
freed-up Oprah money on new programs, stations
used it to shore up their balance sheets.
This year, however, “the economy is better, the stations
have recovered and Oprah has actually gone
away,” says Debmar-Mercury copresident Ira Bernstein.
“I don’t think what we’re seeing is some new economic
model. I think it’s Oprah replacement latency.”
What syndicators are seeing in the post-Oprah
world is the opportunity to snag a foothold and build a long-term business, and
the potential is great enough that the risk is worth it.
“It’s playing the lottery, and there are less than 15 players,” says Bill Carroll, vice
president, director of programming, Katz TV Group.
The gold standard of today’s fragmented talk market—and forget about Oprah
Winfrey and her billions already—is Warner Bros.’ The Ellen DeGeneres Show, agree
many syndicators. The show performs modestly as far as ratings are concerned,
hovering around the mid-2s in households, but Ellen is an advertiser’s dream,
attracting brand integrations like top chefs to GE
Monogram gas ranges.
“In success, you look like Ellen,” says one syndicator.
“The reason you take a swing at talk is because
you want to have that business.”
“The show is truly an organic extension of
[DeGeneres]. It embodies her- essence, sensibility
and authenticity,” says Hilary Estey McLoughlin,
president of Telepictures, the division of Warner
Bros. that produces Ellen. “It’s a very entertaining,
joyful kind of experience. There are not a lot of other places in daytime where
you can have that feeling.”
Syndicators estimate that Ellen brings in at least
$20 million annually in profits, and that’s after paying
DeGeneres a healthy salary and producing a
polished—a.k.a. expensive—program. Over 10
years—and healthy talkers can run for decades—
talk shows can throw off hundreds of millions for a
show’s producing studio, even though the first year
or two are usually break-even or money-losing.
“Once you get a successful talk show going,
profits can be in the neighborhood of $20 million
to $50 million a year, and that’s every year,” says
Debmar-Mercury’s Bernstein. “When you are talking
about that range, it is a real business.”
Your Ad Here
A big part of that pro! tability lies in advertising,
and daytime remains a great place to reach viewers.
Much more so than primetime, daytime is built on
viewer loyalty and connection to hosts, and that
environment can be very appealing to advertisers.
Television, with its big audiences, also still offers
advertisers the biggest bang for their buck, even
“Advertisers need to advertise on television,” says
Ken Werner, president of Warner Bros. Domestic
Television Distribution. “Advertisers still feel that
TV is the most compelling way to get their message
out, because airing their message on television
results in sales. If there was a more efficient way for them to increase their sales,
they would do it.”
Syndicators also have built brand integration into a real business, amounting to
as much as $10 million a year on some shows, such as Ellen. CTD’s Entertainment
Tonight and Rachael Ray also rake in the brand-integration bucks. Among the talk
shows coming to market, most syndicators think Disney/ABC Television’s Katie has
the best shot at building an advertiser-friendly platform for brand integrations, but
it’s something everyone tries to do to an extent.
One thing that advertisers—
and syndicators, particularly—
like right now is that almost all
syndicated talk show ratings are
up this year compared to last,
with NBCU’s Steve Wilkos and
CTD’s The Doctors the only exceptions.
Among the top talkers,
Live!, which saw host Regis Philbin
exit last November, was up
32% in the November sweeps period compared to 2010.
And even without a big event like Philbin’s retirement from Live!, CTD’s Dr. Phil
has added 7%, Sony’s Dr. Oz has improved 17%, Ellen has gained 9% and NBCU’s
Maury has tacked on 20%. Much of those increases are the result of viewer migration
and time-period upgrades because of the departure of Oprah and several soap
operas, but it still amounts to a better overall daytime environment for advertisers.
In Search of Hits
Still, ratings are not what they used to be. When the late, great Roger King
launched King World’s short-lived talker Living It Up! With Ali & Jack in fall 2003,
he told B&C, “As usual, it’s a very difficult business, and it’s not easy to develop
hits. Last year, everyone thought a 2 rating was a hit, but a 2 rating is not a hit. A
5 rating is a hit.”
Nine years later, the market
has fragmented even further.
These days, a 2.0 is a hit, or
enough of one to keep a show on
the air. Syndicators widely agree
that at a 2.0 or greater, Katie will
be a success. They also agree that
it’s going to be tough for any of
the rest of the entries to hit even
that level, which is why it’s imperative
to keep costs down.
“I can’t imagine any of these
shows coming on the air and
popping out of the box with
a 3.0 rating,” says one top
syndicator. “Everyone has to be
Next season’s glut of talk shows
also is going to make breaking
through the clutter to attract
and keep viewers considerably
tougher than it’s
ever been before.
of these shows in
the same genre in
the same year is
going to fragment
the audience so
much that very few
of these shows, if
any, will win,” says
Byron Allen, chairman
Studios, which currently
inroads in the court genre with two strips on the air and a third—Justice for
All With Judge Cristina Perez—coming next fall. Allen produces his shows economically
and gives them all second runs on cable networks that Entertainment
Studios owns. “The studios are spending too much money for too small of an
audience to be split four or more ways in the same year,” Allen says.
Lower ratings mean lower license fees, and syndicators still need those fees to
produce a successful talk show.
“You have to have a certain amount of weekly license fees, that’s a must,” says
Greg Meidel, president of Twentieth
Television, which is launching
Ricki Lake’s new show this
fall. “You can’t enter the market
with a cash-plus-barter configuration
as your economic model,
and then give your show away
on a straight barter basis.”
“People are willing to pay a
license fee now, they are just
$125,000 per week less than they once were per show. That’s $6.5 million that
you have to make up elsewhere,” says Nogawski.
Syndicators are trying to make up that shortfall by doing things like cutting host
salaries—with the exception of Couric’s, which is widely acknowledged to be $20
million, 10 times more than what most hosts can command these days. Probst is
reportedly getting paid $1.5 million for his first season, more in line with what
most first-year hosts earn. In general, hosts are being asked to take the same kind
of risk that syndicators are taking—put in the time and effort up front and then
get paid once the show establishes itself.
“Salaries have definitely come down to earth,” says one syndicator. “Most companies
are willing to give stars more of the back end and share in a show’s success,”
assuming that success comes.
A Little Off the Top
Other elements are getting shaved here and there too—producers’
salaries are a little bit lower, and shows are being produced for a
touch less. Solutions like NBCUniversal’s—in which the company’s
studios moved all talk shows to Connecticut to take advantage of
a good tax break and started shooting the shows with overlapping
crews and sets—are becoming more common.
“We are getting some of that savings in facilities costs; they have to
take a hit too,” says Nogawski. “People are saying, ‘We can’t afford to
produce the show at what you are charging me to rent the space.’ But
as we come down on the talent end, facilities have to take a bit less
too so they have a job.”
To some extent, there’s an advantage in being a big shop like CTD
or Warner Bros. Those studios sell plenty of product and occupy tons
of time slots, and that gives them
leverage in the market. And they,
like Twentieth and NBCU, also have
strong barter ad-sales organizations
in place that can hit the ground
running when their studios launch
On the flip side, smaller outfits such as Debmar-Mercury and
Entertainment Studios are able to
do more with less and they can be
much more agile, testing shows, selling
them for all-barter and keeping
costs down to the bare minimum.
In the end, it all amounts to the
risks syndicators are willing to
take, and they all agree they need
to keep stepping up in order to stay
relevant. Even long-running shows
like Oprah eventually go away, and
replacements need to be constantly
“If you don’t step up to the
plate, then you are nowhere,” says
Nogawski. “Sometimes you’ll get a
single, sometimes a double, but until
you get a couple of guys on base,
you have nothing.”