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Last year at this time, syndicators and TV stations were preparing to roll out more new talk shows than TV stations had seen in years, including Disney-ABC’s Katie, NBCUniversal’s Steve Harvey, Twentieth’s Ricki Lake, CBS Television Distribution’s Jeff Probst and NBCUniversal’s Trisha Goddard.
Why This Matters
That’s likely to be the last time TV sees as many new talk shows introduced in a season.
This year, three talk shows are premiering: Warner Bros.’ Bethenny, Sony Pictures Television’s Queen Latifah and CTD’s The Arsenio Hall Show. Expectations for all three shows are modest, and with Arsenio airing mostly in 11 p.m. time slots, when audience levels are lower, ratings expectations around that show are even more conservative.
Last year was considered syndicators’ attempt to make a grab for the audience that CTD’s Oprah left behind when that show wrapped up in 2011, especially with Katie, starring Katie Couric, landing in plum afternoon time slots on ABC-owned stations. What everyone has since learned is that Oprah’s audience has dispersed across the TV landscape, and isn’t likely to be found again.
If this year seems reminiscent of last year, one reason is that the track record for last year’s class isn’t actually bad, in relative terms. Katie, Steve Harvey and Trisha Goddard all are returning for a second season, although Steve Harvey is the only new show that’s been renewed for multiple years.
While syndicators are still trying to find the next big hit, their risks are more calculated. The last time a talk show could be called an instant hit was CTD’s Dr. Phil, which premiered at a 4.4 household rating after spending years being incubated on Oprah. Since then, premiering at a 2.0 household rating has become the best-case scenario.
Syndicators are still willing to spend money to make a show that can break out, but they work extra hard to keep budgets under control. At under a 2.0 rating, after all, profits are hard to come by. The downward ratings pressure and crowded marketplace also helps explain why each year syndicators are introducing fewer shows. Big swings are rare, while tests have become common and in some cases— such as on Fox-owned stations—required.
“Today, it’s more difficult to be noticed, and you don’t have the same resources,” says one syndicator. “It’s harder to get the audience to pay attention. When you are creating a show, you need to find a need and then the audience will slowly discover your program.”
If any one of these new shows premieres at a 2.0 household rating or higher, it will be immediately pronounced a resounding hit. That’s not likely to happen, however, and that’s become part of syndicators’ game plan. What is far more important to syndicators and TV stations in today’s hyper-fragmented market is less how a show opens and more how it builds into a lasting brand.
“These days, the first thing you have to be concerned about it is more about the production,” says Joe DiSalvo, CTD president of sales. “You need to put a television show on the air that looks like it’s ready to go. We feel we’ve been able to do that with Arsenio himself, the band, the lighting, and all of the other stuff that goes into putting on a big television show.”
While first- and second-week returns offer an early look at whether viewers are immediately interested in new TV fare, early ratings are more of an indication of a show’s potential than something around which a judgment should be determined.
In some cases, such as Twentieth’s Ricki Lake or CTD’s Jeff Probst last season, ratings can indicate quick failures: both shows opened low, never showed potential for growth, and were canceled by season’s end.
In other cases, early ratings indicate a spark: Steve Harvey debuted at a so-so 1.2 in its first week, but by March, the show was up 41% to a 1.7, and NBCU’s sales force was out renewing the show in multi-year deals. Even in its first weeks, Harvey was up 40% in rating from its year-ago time period average and up 27% from its lead-in. Those are the measures syndicators consider when evaluating a show’s early success.
“At the end of the day, there are still two barometers that I think any show will point to: is it doing better than its lead-in and better than the show it replaced. When it comes to the Xs and Os of what we are hoping to see this week, those are the two things that everyone is going to point to,” says DiSalvo.
“Our expectations are [always] that when a show launches, it will launch at a little bit below time period. If we are lucky, over the course of six to 10 weeks, it will grow and more people will find it,” says one syndicator. “We also watch to see if the show holds its audience over the quarter-hours.”
What that means is that if Queen Latifah launches at a 1.5 in households, for example, but is improving on time periods and lead-ins, it will be considered a success and a likely candidate for renewal, especially if the show continues in that pattern as the season wears on.
Succeeding by Sticking With It
That’s why the name of today’s syndication game is weathering the early years long enough to allow a show to become a franchise.
Debmar-Mercury’s Wendy Williams always has been a strong performer in New York City, but not so much in the rest of the country. Still, the Fox Television Stations liked the program, and kept renewing it. Suddenly, in the middle of its fourth season, Wendy Williams started to show growth. And this summer, after staying in originals through July, Wendy Williams was up 63% year over year.
When Warner Bros.’ Ellen premiered in September 2003, its ratings were a modest 1.3 household average. Ten years later, Ellen frequently comes close to a 3.0 in households, a 130% improvement. Even that show’s strong ratings are less important than what Ellen has become: one of daytime’s premiere environments for advertisers, a polished and familiar brand, and a very profitable franchise. Those accomplishments meet any syndicator’s highest expectations in today’s tough market.
Meeting those goals start by figuring out what the marketplace is missing and then finding ways to meet that need, say syndicators.
When Warner Bros. was pitching Bethenny to buyers in fall 2011, the syndicator felt the departure of Oprah left room for a new show that featured a “girlfriend,” a woman to whom daytime viewers could relate on a core level. SPT, on the other hand, feels the end of Oprah has opened the door for a new “premium- blend entertainment program,” says John Weiser, SPT president of distribution. “The audience wants a host with the heart of Oprah and the relevance of Ellen, but Queen Latifah stands on her own with so many qualities and experiences that are unique to her.”
When Bethenny launches on Fox-owned stations in large markets on Monday, Sept. 9, the show’s “girlfriend” approach will include a mix of celebrity; food, health and weight; sex, relationship and marriage; lifestyle topics such as fashion and interior design; and business and career.
“This show will be about things women want to talk about but are too embarrassed to bring up, such as marriage, infidelity, finances, getting into business, embarrassing moments and sexual experiences,” says Frankel. “On our program, these topics won’t be embarrassing. There will be no judgment about them.”
Last summer, Warner Bros. tested Bethenny on Fox-owned stations in six markets, and both Warner Bros. and Fox were happy. As a result, stations have a good sense of what they are going to get with Bethenny, both from a content and ratings perspective.
Queen Latifah: ‘A Premium Entertainment Blend’
Part of Queen Latifah’s selling point, according to SPT, is that she too is relatable to the daytime audience, composed largely of women. Latifah, who has won Grammys and been nominated for an Oscar, also is a singer and a comedian, giving SPT the ability to insert plenty of variety into the show.
“A show that’s a real brand is distinctive in the marketplace, and advertisers pay a premium for that,” says Weiser. “Those types of shows also help brand TV stations in their local markets.”
More than any other daytime show this year, Queen Latifah will focus on celebrity. In the first week, John Travolta, Jamie Foxx, Sharon Stone, Jake Gyllenhaal, and executive producer and movie star Will Smith all will make appearances.
“There will certainly be a good deal of celebrity focus on Queen Latifah,” says executive producer Corin Nelson. “It’s part of the overall tapestry of our show.”
Music—“which has to be a part of Latifah’s world,” says Nelson—also will be a big part of the program, with a deejay on set and frequent musical performances, some of which will be by Latifah herself. She’ll also appear in taped comedic skits, and have frequent segments that feature real people.
“The storytelling every day will spotlight everyday people doing extraordinary things with stories to which people really connect,” says Nelson. “Whatever makes her most herself, our goal is to build that environment for her.”
Queen Latifah is launching on CBS-owned stations in the country’s largest markets, including at 9 a.m. on WCBS, and 2 p.m. on KCBS Los Angeles and WBBM Chicago.
‘Arsenio’: Staying True to Himself
Similarly, CTD’s The Arsenio Hall Show hopes to tap into nostalgia and relatability as he returns to late night after 19 years off the air on Sept. 9. Arsenio will air in late-fringe time slots, namely 11 p.m., on Tribune-owned stations in the country’s largest markets.
“Broadly, it’s a 2013 version of not only the show he did 19 years ago, but also a fairly time-tested late-night format,” says Neal Kendall, Arsenio executive producer. “In his first week back, Arsenio wanted to be surrounded by people who meant something to him personally and oftentimes had a connection to the original show. That doesn’t apply to all of our guests, but there’s still a fair number from back then who have blown up and are even bigger now.”
Among Arsenio’s first week of celebrity guests are Chris Tucker, Mark Harmon, Lisa Kudrow, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Penn & Teller, George Lopez and Angela Bassett. Musical guests include Nas, Mac Miller, Earth Wind & Fire and Emblem 3.
“I think that people who tune in that first week are very impressionable, and they’ll decide in that short period of time if it’s something to which they will return,” says CTD’s DiSalvo.
The Test: Sliding Into Conflict Blocks
Besides the talkers, syndicators are rolling out two new conflict talkers: CTD’s The Test, executive produced by Jay McGraw and hosted by comedian Kirk Fox; and MGM’s Paternity Court, hosted by lawyer Lauren Lake.
The Test, the main launch group for which is Tribune’s owned stations, is a blend of court and talk, says executive producer McGraw. Premiering on Sept. 9, it was designed to fit into the conflict talk blocks that currently air on Tribune station—NBCU’s Maury, Jerry Springer and Steve Wilkos. Maury and Jerry, in particular, are aging brands and syndicators have been looking for shows to replace them, such as last season’s Trisha Goddard.
“What people can expect is a show that is based on conflict but has a lot of humor because Kirk is very quick-witted and funny but still very compassionate,” says McGraw, who also executive produces CTD’s The Doctors.
In its first week, The Test will host Michael and Dina Lohan, parents of Lindsay Lohan, in their first televised appearance together in years. The show uses DNA tests and lie detectors to test everything from paternity to drugs to infidelity.
Says McGraw: “There’s a lot of variety so you get the satisfaction at the end of knowing who was right and who was wrong.”
Two new magazines also will premiere on Sept. 9: Warner Bros.’ TMZ Live, a spinoff of TMZ, on Fox-owned stations and in a few other markets; and OK! TV, a partnership between Unconventional Partners and American Media that will leverage the content of OK! magazine.
In this first week of syndie premieres, the focus will be on first-week results but that won’t be what matters in the end.
“In the long term, we want to produce best-in-class shows that stay on the air a long time,” Weiser says. “This helps local stations know it’s worth investing their promotional resources in the program.”