The key to keeping daytime shows fresh and new—whether they've been on the air for 16 years like Buena Vista's Live With Regis and Kelly, 13 years like Paramount's The Montel Williams Show
or less than one year like Warner Bros.' The Ellen DeGeneres Show—is to make changes a little bit at a time, the shows' producers say.
"What I find to be the key to producing a successful daytime show is evolution, not revolution," says Michael Gelman, (or just "Gelman!" as Regis Philbin is wont to exclaim during almost every show). As executive producer of Regis and Kelly
and a veteran of the business, he says, "There are some real constants in the show, and that would be the fun, live element and the off-the-cuff humor. But, in general, we try to keep things familiar. We don't try to change a million things at a time."
Gelman and syndicator Buena Vista faced a huge change three years ago: replacing long-time co-host Kathie Lee Gifford with Kelly Ripa. After Ripa had guest-hosted the show 10 times, the Live
crew and Gelman decided she was the one for them.
"The first time she was on, we all thought there was a connection with the audience and with Regis," Gelman says. "It was like dating. Through the dating process, we got to know her more, and, each time she was on, the good feelings were confirmed. When we were all sure, we made a commitment."
That commitment has paid off because viewers have stuck with the show. In the week ended Jan. 18, the show hit a 3.9 national household rating, a little up from last year at this time.
What all producers of daytime talk shows say is that viewers tune in day after day, year after year because they want to hang out with their favorite talent, who almost seems like a friend to them, from Philbin to Ripa to Montel Williams.
"Montel has an incredible rapport with his viewers. It's as if he's always talking to them," says Diane Rappoport, Montel's executive producer. "In order for viewers to give up an hour a day for a talk show, they want to feel like they know Montel and that he is going to give them something they can use in their daily life. He is very open with his emotions and his feelings, and viewers know they are going to get the real deal when they watch him."
Says Gelman, "The important thing is that relationship you create on these personality-driven shows that are stripped five days a week. You become friends with your audience, creating a real link with those viewers at home. Regis and Kelly both talk from the heart in a real way. People know their lives."
That said, producers agree that it's important to keep daytime shows fresh and fun, without shocking the viewers. In the case of Ellen, although the show still follows a daytime format, the producers also want to make sure that what DeGeneres does seems unique to her.
"She always brings her own brand of humor to everything that we do," says executive producer Mary Connelly, "and that is what makes our show different."
Producers generate expectations; viewers either like the routine, or the show doesn't last. For example, viewers who check in on Ellen
every day are sure to see the comedian dancing to disco or hip-hop, something no other talk-show host does on a daily basis.
"It's so much fun," Connelly says. "That's purely Ellen expressing how she feels at that moment. Ellen loves music, and she loves to dance. She does what she feels. It's great, and people are loving it. Audience members are standing up and dancing with her at times, and people write in and say they dance when Ellen dances."
DeGeneres also came up with a quirky use for the Telestrator, Connelly says, referring to the device typically used during sports events to review plays in slow motion and allow an announcer to "draw" on the screen. In DeGeneres's case, after tripping on the set one day, she asked Connelly if the cameras had caught her fall. They had, so she asked to have the Telestrator brought in and, on the next day's show, ran the fall in slow motion, using the Telestrator to explain what she was thinking during each millisecond of her fall.
"We liked it so much that we kept it on the set, and it's become a fixture," Connelly says. The show now refers to the Telestrator as the "looky-loo."
"It's allowing her to interact with the audience in a new way that we haven't seen on daytime television. On a daily basis, Ellen just amazes us with her abilities."
Montel's Rappoport says audiences come to Montel for who he is but the show works to keep stories fresh. "The key for our show is the relevancy of the topics and the stories that we tell. We respond to what is happening in the news. We talk about relationships and about what is on everybody's mind throughout the country. We take a lot of local stories and give them a national feel."