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The New Daytime Talk Wars: Let's Hug It Out (Analysis)

Katie Couric, Steve Harvey, Jeff Probst and Ricki Lake join the daytime gab-fest. In search of fame and feelings.

Katie Couric Ricki Lake Jeff Probst - H 2012

Monday is a day that will live in infamy. Well, OK, it wasn’t that bad. But it did see the launch of three much-hyped daytime talk shows – from Katie Couric, Jeff Probst and Ricki Lake -- with Steve Harvey's contribution debuting the week prior.

Clearly, Couric is the big fish here. She’s coming into an already crowded daytime talk arena, just as Anderson Cooper did last year. Everybody wants to be the new Ellen, if not the new Oprah.

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But there must be something peculiarly fetching about wanting to be a talk show host that’s not readily obvious to the rest of us. Let’s just self-confidently say the notion probably has a lot to do with making a fortune, which is there for the taking if the daytime audience falls for you. And there’s also the not-unrealistic idea that these hosts all want to be more famous than they are, more powerful and ever-present, too. Sure, they want to make a difference. How could they not, with all of the earnestness bubbling through all of them to help others be the very best version of themselves?

Apparently -- and this is important if you don’t normally dabble in the sensual, warm, healing waters of daytime -- we are a country adrift with egregious emotional issues. Daytime talk shows, in lieu of shelling out for a therapist, are a way to have a communal bond with other, like-minded people with woes. We have long been a nation willing to overshare, and obviously a very lucrative Jerry Springer-esque milieu popped up to exploit that. Yes, Maury, we’re looking at you.

But aside from the freak-show element, daytime television -- catering overwhelmingly to women -- is a place to get your visual hugs. If you want celebrities talking about their movies, you wait until late night. If you want celebrities talking about their cancer and troubled marriages and runaway weight issues, you park yourself in daytime.

However, celebrities are merely the leavening agent in daytime talk shows. They are there to prove They Are Just Like Us. Apparently, that makes Us feel a lot better. Mostly, daytime tells the story of normal people either trying to overcome something terrible or getting a makeover amid the kindly approval of other people who overeat or can’t find the right dress or the right man. A cynical person might say there’s an incredible opportunity to turn those stories into ratings and cash if you were so inclined as a talk show host. Alas, cynicism is not allowed on these kinds of daytime shows. You’ll have to wait for Jimmy Kimmel to give you his daily dose later in the evening.

STORY: From Katie Couric to Ricki Lake: A Guide to Daytime's New (But Familiar) Faces 

While it’s not fair to review or judge a talk show on its first day, there are first-take impressions to be garnered. Here then, a quick look at what the four new entrants into Self-Help Huggyville are selling.

Katie: The only one of the four big enough to sell the cult of themselves -- which not even Cooper could do when he premiered -- is Katie. She’s the Oprah in the room. You come to Katie because she’s got famous friends, gets lots of famous guests, is friendly enough with most of them to allow them to open up in a safe, comfortable environment if they want to share what’s going on inside their famous heads and is a seasoned enough journalist to grill everybody else in a way few others in daytime have done.

You can tell Katie anything. It’s just the two of you.

Her debut effort was like a well-crafted mix of going into Couric’s world where she’d share secrets with you -- because it’s absolutely essential to be transparent about your personal life if you’re a daytime host -- and also to be dazzled by her guests.

After a cheesy taped bit where Couric has a dream about the past five years of her life, she wakes up next to Matt Lauer (albeit in a separate single bed). No, she wasn’t dreaming -- she now had her own talk show! Immediately, Couric shared tweets from people who told her to make sure she peed before going on and to make sure to wear fabulous shoes (both of which she did, apparently). Without giving a sales pitch about the new show, Couric said it was a place to meet interesting people, be inspired and enlightened and to have some fun.

She got right to the sharing. She talked about losing her husband to colon cancer 15 years ago. She had her two daughters in the audience. She had her mother in the audience. She had three of her junior high school friends in the audience (with a then-and-now picture). She said she was turning 55. And that she was single.

That’s a pro, people. She nailed the checklist like nobody else.

Couric’s first guest was Jessica Simpson, who was there to talk about weight loss after the birth of her daughter. Her inability to do so has been sport for the tabloids, and if anything is chum in the water to daytime viewers, it’s a good chat about weight issues.

Simpson, of course, fits the mold of being famous and pretty and once so ridiculously toned she reintroduced the notion of Daisy Duke shorts. But there she was, having lost more than 40 pounds and still noticeably heavy, but on her way to losing it. That’s your She’s Just Like You moment. Simpson talked about becoming a Weight Watchers spokeswoman and how hard it was to lose weight and on and on with that topic like a six-course meal with commercials. But that’s the price of admission on daytime.

Couric’s next guest was Sheryl Crow, who is friends with Couric and wrote the theme song to Katie because Couric asked her. She’s also a single mom of a certain age -- who, by the way, looks spectacular (and that’s your Keep Hope Alive moment) -- who shared thoughts about her two kids. She also had a benign brain tumor. She also used to date Lance Armstrong (almost married him, in fact), and she looked a little uncomfortable as Couric asked about his lifetime ban from cycling for doping. But hell, she was the trifecta of great daytime stories, so it was all very interesting.

Katie was by far the most polished and focused of the new shows. The set was a little bit like an upscale department store, but it didn’t matter (and it probably will be changed five times in the next year). Stay tuned for Couric grilling Heidi Klum in the model’s first sit-down interview since her divorce from Seal. J.Lo will be there this week, too. You know the drill. This show is a slam dunk.

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The Jeff Probst Show: This is the longest of all shots in daytime because almost nobody in the daytime universe knows who he is. That’s not just a cheap joke; it’s the biggest obstacle and fear of the people presenting the show -- and it should be because not everybody watches Survivor, which Probst has hosted since its 2000 premiere. There’s no real clear mission statement to The Jeff Probst Show, or at least one that was graspable, but it appears he wants you to live in the moment, say yes to risks (for rewards) and live your life out loud. He is extremely earnest. So much so that you almost believe him when he says he wants to be a talk show host to change lives or whatever. That might be true. But the better bet is on wanting to be more famous, wanting to make money, wanting to prove he could do it, whatever. Just a small professional judgment there.

And while Probst has the steepest odds, don’t count him out if people actually decide to tune in or land there by mistake while they’re trolling for Steve Harvey. His earnestness is, in fact, likable (so, so rare). If you give him an hour, he might talk you into watching again. He’s not going to go out without spilling all of his adrenaline. But the show lacks real focus. He started with a young woman who has cancer. Not had cancer and then got better but has cancer and is making the most of the time she has left. That seems to tick a box in daytime, but you might not build the foundation with it. Probst asked the courageous young woman what it was like “now that you have this crazy opportunity to live life very differently than a lot of us do”; hopefully he won’t phrase it quite like that in the future even if he marvels at people’s can-do pluck.

Of all the sets, his seemed the most random, as if the camera could come from anywhere or if what he really wanted was one of those Survivor tribal council scenes but was talked out of it but nobody could match his vision quite right. Also, the premiere was a little awkward in that Probst had to acknowledge just who he was and what he was about, but there was too much telling and not enough showing.

Probst is not your typical daytime talk show host, and that seems to be the hook -- just not a very catchy one. Wish him some luck.

Steve Harvey: Harvey wasted no time talking about who he is and what he’s done. Comedian. Radio host. Game show host. Author. Divorced. Remarried. Father. In a blended family of seven. “Believe me, if there’s something going on in your house, there’s probably a piece of it going on in mine too. I’m here to help. We’ll get through this thing together.”

What exactly “this” is, he did not say. But you’d have to think it was some kind of emotional issue. Harvey’s hook is that he’s a man the ladies can relate to. He understands men. He’s going to make sure the women get treated special. He started off his show with a guy who wanted to redo his botched wedding proposal of 15 years ago (the couple is happily married). He also had on a young couple where the guy had restricted his wife to $100 a month of spending (that she didn’t have to explain). His cheapness was stopping her from getting skinny lattes and a good mani-pedi, and that hurt her feelings. It confined her happiness. Don’t worry -- in those instances and some other feel-good segments, he got everybody through this thing together.

Harvey’s set was bland and boring. There wasn’t a real comfort level there. It needs to be redone so it’s not like a makeover project from some cheap design show. Of course, the bigger issue is whether women want to watch Harvey suavely help them or if they’d rather get through this thing on their own. Or with Katie.

Ricki: Or how about Ricki Lake? She’s no stranger to strange problems. She had a talk show back when sleaze and exploitation were the rage and this whole aspirational thing wasn’t yet in vogue. She made sure to quickly mock her past and prove that she’s moved on, prancing from that shtick to her light-filled and comfortable set. She was in a short purple dress -- purple being a major color in her palette. She exuberantly talked about coming to terms with who she is and in the body she has, which made it clear where the focus was going to be. Lake said a recent poll suggested “97 percent of women have ‘I hate my body’ thoughts at least one time per day.” The show was dedicated to this issue, where the plus-sized model Emme came on to bond over accepting yourself and not to let your mind be mean to you. One woman went from a size 28 to a 4 but still doesn’t feel like that person, so a psychotherapist (who also had her own issues with obesity and overcame them, naturally) told her to accept her new self and be proud of it. Another woman lost 110 pounds but still kept shopping for clothes three sizes too big for her. So she clearly needed -- wait for it! -- a makeover and shopping trip.

Yep, you pretty much know what Ricki is going to be like. It’s going to be like a lot of other shows. But it also seems to skew younger, if the crowd shots are any indication, and the set looked like a mixture of a Jonathan Adler storefront, a glass vase menagerie and home to a big soft couch with pillows that Lake and some guests might one day hit each other with in a female-bonding moment about learning to love yourself. And no, that was not a snide comment -- it will probably happen. If Ricki is anything, it’s upbeat validation about being yourself.

Now, for the love of God, I need a dose of Jimmy Kimmel with a Letterman chaser.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine