Like Wendy Williams herself, Fox and Debmar-Mercury are telling it like it is when it comes to the launch of their new co-produced talk show starring the New York-based disc jockey.
Fox Television Stations and Debmar-Mercury will give The Wendy Williams Show a six-week test run this summer on four large-market Fox stations: WNYW New York, KTTV Los Angeles, KDFW Dallas and WJBK Detroit. The point of the limited run is that Fox and Debmar will be able to collect enough information to tell them whether it makes financial sense to take the show national in fall 2009.
Debmar-Mercury did something similar with Tyler Perry's House of Payne two years ago, airing a test run of the first-run sitcom on 10 stations. Ratings for that show clearly indicated it was worthwhile for Debmar and Perry to move forward, which was borne out when TBS picked up the show and aired it to stellar ratings. House of Payne premieres on TV stations nationwide this fall.
“The way that business has been done in the past is a bit outdated,” says Frank Cicha, senior VP of programming for the Fox Television Stations. “You enter into an agreement with a syndicator, and then the show stays on whether it succeeds or fails for at least the first year. Everybody can lose a lot of money in that model.”
Says Mort Marcus, co-president of Debmar-Mercury, “We're creating a situation where stations get a lot of information so they don't have to make this huge 52-week bet and then in week seven ask, 'What have I done?' If this show turns out to be a disaster, it's six weeks and out. The hardest thing for us will be if the results are in the middle. If the ratings don't give us clear information one way or another, we'll have to ask ourselves whether it's worth going forward creatively.”
Williams already boasts a great track record as a New York DJ. She broadcasts live from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. on urban powerhouse WBLS, easily swapping between interviewing celebrities, chatting with audience members who call in, and doling out opinions and advice. Since starting on the station in September 2001, Williams' afternoon radio show, The Wendy Williams Experience, has kept the station at No. 1 in the market for the past seven years. The show is syndicated across the country by SupeRadio.
That said, Fox and Debmar want to know how Williams will play in markets that aren't familiar with her straight-talk style and how her personality will cut across daytime demographics. While the show may have trouble attracting an audience this summer because people tend to keep their TVs off in the warm months, it will have to get used to competition. Syndicators have several talk vehicles in development.
Program Partners is shopping Marie, starring Marie Osmond. Warner Bros. is developing Southern cook Paula Deen off the Food Network. Harpo Productions is working on a medical show starring Dr. Mehmet Oz, and Oprah's production company also has signed a development deal with Kirstie Alley. CBS is working with former teen queen Valerie Bertinelli. And Sony plans to launch Broadway star Marisa Jaret Winokur, hoping she can become a successor to Ricki Lake.
Still, Williams is confident, and Wendy Williams will be shot live in front of an audience, so there won't be a lot of room for error.
“If I had been offered the opportunity to work in front of a live audience 10 years ago, I would have frozen up,” she says. “But now I have no trepidations about this at all.
“I feel I offer a fresh perspective,” she adds. “I don't mind laughing at myself, criticizing myself or being perfectly candid about myself. I don't see any other girls like me on TV.”