Shows Hit the Fan

Daytime hones its interactive edge

Rachael Ray receives so many e-mails from viewers begging to be invited on to her show to cook with the daytime talk show host that producers finally decided to create a contest out of it.

“We had boxes and boxes and crates of e-mails

from people,” says Janet Annino, the show's executive producer. “One day, we all looked at each other and said, 'Why aren't we doing that? Let's hold a competition.'”

So the show created a segment called “So You Think You Can Cook”—a mock homage to Fox's hit reality show So You Think You Can Dance—and invited people to take their best culinary shot by submitting videos of themselves cooking meals. The top five finalists will be invited on the show to have a cook-off against each other and Ray. The winner will take Ray's place in the kitchen for one show, have their original recipe published in Ray's magazine, Every Day With Rachael Ray, and receive further training at a nationally recognized culinary institute.

“It was always Rachael's vision and mine that, except for her, the viewer is the star of this show,” Annino says. “A lot of this is because the viewers are so invested in this show and in her as a talent.”

The segment is an outgrowth of something that daytime shows are good at doing: engaging their viewers both on- and off-air through their Website communities. CBS' Rachael Ray has been working hard at it, with its page views growing to more than 13 million in September compared to a monthly average of 9 million last year.

That sort of online engagement is becoming so important that Warner Bros. encourages all of its daytime producers to do it, and considers each of its show Websites to be an individual business.

“The Websites are definitely something that add to our bottom line,” says Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures.

It doesn't always work. NBC Universal's struggling In the Loop with iVillage is built around meshing with the NBCU-owned Website, but it hasn't caught on.

On the other hand, Ellen DeGeneres spent the summer keeping her fans engaged by offering a series of video blogs on the show's Website, even while the program was airing repeats. And the show is about to premiere Ellen's wiki, where viewers can contribute content such as stories, jokes, pictures and recipes.

“There's a real loyal following and sense of community among these women,” McLoughlin says.

That's actually one of the great truisms of daytime: Its most successful stars are those to whom their viewers deeply relate. Their fans love them so much that they want to spend more time with them, whether through a vibrant Website or a glossy magazine, like Oprah Winfrey's O Magazine or Ray's Every Day with Rachael Ray.

It's a concept that doesn't just apply to daytime talk. NBC's Today show, which is competing with syndie talkers now that it's four hours long, puts tons of content on its Website. Two weeks ago, it hit a record, attracting 14 million unique visitors in just one week.

“We lend ourselves well to video streams, interactivity, fashion segments, recipes, and on and on. It really has become a 24/7 operation, and it's something we're happily involved in,” says Jim Bell, Today's executive producer.

While the impact of a TV show's Web presence can't yet be measured, David Marans, executive vice president of IAG Research, says his firm is working on it. “The evidence shows that the more involved in a show you are to begin with, the more likely you are to take action,” he says. “Fans who go to Websites, produce videos or go to YouTube, those are the ones who are already pretty loyal and engaged. But we'll be able to extricate all of that at some point in the near future.”