Laughs for Daytime

Audience gets starring role in Behrendt chatfest

Greg Behrendt has sold more than 2.5 million books about breaking up, but Sony Pictures Television (SPT) hopes he can forge a lasting relationship with viewers. The Greg Behrendt Show launches Sept. 12 in 97% of the country, and Sony is counting on the former standup comedian and co-author of He's Just Not That Into You to make his humorous relationship-centric talk show stand out.

“We all know that women in particular want to be able to laugh at daytime, and what we have given them the last few years are the more celeb-driven shows like Ellen,” says Melanie Chilek, SPT's senior VP of development and syndicated programming. “But we haven't been able to bring humor into other programs other than in kind of a negative way, like a Springer or Maury.”

Sony is introducing Behrendt during a period in which the syndication world is welcoming bigger names, such as Rachael Ray and Megan Mullally. Chilek acknowledges that this will be a challenge but notes that big names don't guarantee big ratings. “When you look at the people who are known who have tried to launch talk shows, it has been just as difficult,” she says, citing Jane Pauley as an example.

And while Behrendt is also scheduled to host a midseason relationship reality show on ABC, some say being less well-known can benefit a program. “Expectations are not as high, and you can be the quirky new kid on the block,” says Bill Carroll, VP/director of programming for Katz Television Group. “On the other hand, expectations for Rachael Ray are very high, and thus, even if you are moderately successful, you are judged against higher expectations.”

With less than a month before taping begins, SPT is fine-tuning the format; the studio ran a series of test shows over three days in late June. Each episode will have a relationship-related topic, such as getting over break-ups or twentysomething children who won't move out of the house.

“The topics that fuel daytime are pretty much the same, be they in soap operas or on Oprah,” says Chilek. “It's the way you treat them that sets you apart.”

SPT plans to give the studio audience a starring role in Behrendt. As audience members arrive, they will fill out questionnaires about the topic of the day, which Behrendt and the producers will be able to use during the taping. Prior to entering the studio, the audience members will also be given the chance to step into a video confessional booth—think The Real World—to share anecdotes relating to the day's topic. Clips may roll throughout the show.

The set has a big ramp from the stage into and around the audience, giving Behrendt the opportunity to interact with the crowd.

“We haven't really seen a lot of audience participation in talk since the days of Ricki Lake,” says Chilek. “But in the shows we've done, we've seen the audience can really be a main part of [them].”

But Sony's chief concern is the participation of a much bigger audience: the one watching at home.

“Given the lack of success ratio that talk shows normally face, it's not an impossible task, but it is daunting for any show coming on the air in daytime,” Katz's Carroll notes, adding that “no one believes the show is going to come out of the box and be a huge ratings suc-cess. But what's hoped for is, it will get sampled and from that it can build an audience.”