Station managers carrying Live! With Regis and Kelly were largely caught off guard by Tuesday's news that this season will be Regis Philbin's last, but many of them see opportunity going forward.
The station managers unanimously saluted Philbin for his extraordinarily long and storied broadcasting career, and for his work on the morning program. "It's been terrific for us," says WFSB Hartford-New Haven VP/General Manager Klarn DePalma. "It starts the day very well at 9 a.m. It's been a staple and Regis has done a great job."
Philbin apparently shared his plans in an early a.m. meeting with syndicators, hours before breaking the news to the masses on the air. Station partners mostly heard the news the same time viewers did-when Philbin announced it on the program.
General managers at the ABC-owned stations found out just before showtime. "It was a pretty closely guarded secret," says one insider who asked not to be named. (A call for comment to the ABC owned station group on Philbin's announcement was forwarded to a press rep from Live! With Regis and Kelly.)
Some weren't all that surprised with the news, due to both Philbin's age (79) and the fact that the show had been employing more guest hosts to cover for Philbin as he took time off. "You know the day is coming," says one GM in a Top 20 market. "You just don't know when."
While saluting Philbin's unique style, some at the stations say there may be opportunity to grow ratings-and build a younger audience-with a change in the co-host's chair. That Philbin has taken considerable time off this season hasn't helped some stations build momentum for Live!.
"It's an older audience," says WAAY Huntsville VP/General Manager Art Lanham. "This may be a good opportunity for Disney."
Indeed, some have seen ratings declines with the program, and hope both a Philbin farewell tour and a fresh face in the co-host chair will goose-and sustain--ratings. "The show has been in a slow decline," says WWMT Grand Rapids VP/General Manager Jim Lutton. "This gives them a real opportunity for reinvention."
The various fill-ins, including co-host Kelly Ripa's husband, Mark Consuelos, and the comic Howie Mandel, might get consideration for a broader role. Some wondered how Anderson Cooper might've fit on Live!, but Cooper of course took himself out of play after announcing his own daytime show. Insiders expect Disney-ABC Television Group to look for someone in the Cooper mode as a replacement: male, on the younger side, popular with female viewers.
Live! producers will likely test a batch of potential hosts as guest hosts, much as they did when Kathie Lee Gifford departed a decade ago. Most expect the replacement to be a big name, but Ripa, formerly of All My Children, was hardly a household name when she came on board. That smooth transition bodes well for Live! With Regis and Kelly, believe some at the station level.
"A lot of people thought the show would be hurt when Kathie Lee left," says Fort Meyers Broadcasting/WINK Fort Meyers VP/General Manager Wayne Simons. "But I've got confidence they'll fine someone solid, just like they did when Kathie Lee left, and do fine in the long term."
The general managers say the fees they pay for the program aren't likely to change when the A-list star steps off the stage; that scenario was already factored in when the current contracts were ironed out.
Philbin said he would step down around the end of the summer or fall; he turns 80 in August. In September, Oprah Winfrey makes the break from broadcast TV. Both are rare icons who command major program fees in the local markets.
"Regis has built a wonderful legacy and a nice sustaining program," says WJAR Providence VP/General Manager Lisa Churchville. "It's an easier transition than finding a replacement for Oprah."