Fall's Daytime Wars: How Katie Couric and Four Others Will Try to Be Oprah

 

This story first appeared in the August 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The first look Ricki Lake got of the set of her new syndicated talk show, built on a 13,000-square-foot soundstage inside L.A.'s Culver Studios was shortly after she returned from her Spanish honeymoon in July. She had come down from her temporary office for a production meeting with a dozen staff and network executives, held around a long blond wood table. The meeting was being streamed live on Facebook to more than 17,000 people who were watching, listening and tweeting questions and comments that quickly became part of the discussion, that day focusing on her new set and content for Lake's online magazine.

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It was a far cry from how Lake used to make the talk show she hosted from 1993 to 2004. "I feel like a dinosaur in some ways because we didn't have Facebook, there was no TMZ, the iPhone didn't exist," says Lake, who, at 43, is reinventing herself as well as her approach, trying to engage her viewers long before her show premieres. "There's a lot of power in social media, and we're using it as a resource, as a way for the audience to feel they're a part of the creation of this show."

This sort of aggressive digital integration is one of the things that Lake is using to try to separate herself from a very crowded pack come fall. And the pack isn't just hungry. It's rabid. This fall will see the launch of five new talk shows, each of which is trying to find a large audience in a post-Oprah Winfrey Show world of both diminished ratings and syndication fees. Katie Couric's Katie premieres Sept. 10, the same day as The Ricki Lake Show and Survivor host Jeff Probst's show. Comedian Steve Harvey's will start Sept. 4, and British TV presenter Trisha Goddard will launch hers Sept. 17.

They make up an unusually large freshman class of syndicated talkers. "You would have to go back probably 10 years to find anything close," says Bill Carroll, vp/director of programming at Katz Media Group. "Usually it's two or three. This year is unusual."

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Carroll attributes the large number of newcomers to the continuing fallout from Winfrey's exit to focus on her OWN network; the revived fortunes of TV stations after the recession; the acquisition of NBC by Comcast (which made the network more aggressive); and the resurgence of Disney-ABC's syndicated division, which hadn't launched a new talker since 2004's The Tony Danza Show.

These new shows join a crowded media landscape that includes not just broadcast but cable and online -- and they're all chasing the same 25-to-54-year-old female demographic. And that audience itself is something of a moving target: There are fewer stay-at-home moms in a country where, according to Nielsen, the percentage of women who are married has fallen from 72 percent in 1960 to 52 percent today. Most of these shows are still aimed at Caucasian viewers, even though Hispanics make up the fastest-growing segment of the population and African-Americans watch more TV than any other demographic (especially such "confrontation" talk shows as Maury and The Jerry Springer Show, to a disproportionate degree).

No launch in September will be more watched than Katie. It marks a return to talk for ABC, which has moved General Hospital to make way and returned an hour to its affiliates so that Couric can be on in most places at 3 p.m., giving her a strong station lineup and time slot. ABC has gone all out for Katie, making Couric a part of its news division to give her visibility before launch and committing as much as $40 million in production and talent fees -- most of which will go to Couric and executive producer Jeff Zucker -- well above the estimated $20 million that Fox is said to be spending to launch Ricki and the $25 million Endemol USA and NBC have put behind Steve Harvey. In June, ABC revved up its digital strategy, launching KatieCouric.com as an original-content hub that will expand to integrate an online and social media companion to the show.

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"There's always pressure when you are launching a new show," says Janice Marinelli, president of Disney-ABC Domestic Television, adding that you do it because of "enthusiasm and excitement -- and the belief that you have something special." ABC is promising advertisers that Katie will launch with a 2.8 rating, which would make it the highest-rated freshman talker since Dr. Phil debuted in September 2002 with a 4.4 rating, exceeding the performance of at least 50 other contenders in that decade.

The newcomers also have to find a soft spot in the muscular landscape of game shows, court shows, soap operas and confrontational talkers like those in the killer lineup from NBCUniversal Domestic TV Distribution, which includes Maury, Springer, Steve Wilkos and now Trisha Goddard, who promises a kinder, gentler talker that won't require security guards to keep the guests from maiming one another.

The field is crowded and the risks enormous, but the rewards for those that make it to the fourth or fifth season can be massive. The Ellen DeGeneres Show is said to generate as much as $100 million a year for Telepictures and NBC. Dr. Phil, sources say, is worth up to $150 million a year. At its height, Oprah was raking in more than $300 million a year. It is unlikely any show will reach Oprah levels -- in the years since, the audience has become fragmented in makeup and the ways they ingest television. "It's a much more complex situation to attract audience and even to maintain an audience," says Carroll.

The most profitable syndicated show in daytime is likely Judge Judy. Court shows cost far less to produce than talk shows -- as little as $10 million a season -- and often do better when repeated. Judge Judy, say sources, brings in close to $200 million a year for CBS, while Judge Judith Sheindlin takes home nearly $50 million annually.

CBS is believed to be spending a fraction of that to try out Probst as a talk show host, with a commitment close to $20 million and a guaranteed two years on the air. Probst says he's using digital platforms and social media for promotion, but so far he does most of it himself. "I would love to launch a talk show with millions of people excited to see the show," says Probst. "But I've got to be honest. I'm not going to give you a bunch of bullshit. I don't have 10 million Twitter followers. I have what I have." (Probst maintains there is no proven correlation between Twitter followers and ratings: "I look at it as just another tool in your arsenal.")

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Harvey, on the other hand, comes with his own audience -- he's got a popular radio show, his hosting duties on Family Feud and a best-selling book, Think Like a Man, which spawned a $90 million-grossing film -- and NBCUni is pairing Steve Harvey with The Ellen DeGeneres Show in ads and on its owned stations (with Harvey at 3 p.m. and Ellen at 4 in most markets). At the end of August, NBC will launch a sweepstakes whose grand prize is a trip to Chicago to attend his show and a $5,000 shopping spree.

All of that promotion can get a show sampled, but getting an audience to return is another matter. Lake, for one, thinks it comes down to personality. "I'm a fan of Katie Couric, Steve Harvey and Jeff Probst, but the show they do is not the show I do," she says. "I'm focused on doing the best I can for me, for the audience that's grown up watching me. Hopefully there is audience for everyone."

Not likely, says Carroll: "The odds of five shows all being successful are pretty long. The best you can hope is that, maybe, two of the shows will be successful."

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LIFE AFTER OPRAH: When the Queen of Daytime left the stage, her audience was up for grabs. Which existing shows took the greatest advantage?

Oprah

  • 2011: 6.9 million viewers
  • 2012: 7.3 million

Dr. PhilAfter spending years in Winfrey's shadow, Phil McGraw has come into his own since she retired. His is often the top rated among all daytime talk shows.

  • 2011: 3.8 million viewers/2.9 rating
  • 2012: 4.1 million viewers/3.1 rating (+7%)

Judge JudyHer ratings were higher than Oprah even before Winfrey walked. Her program, like many judge shows, does well in multiple runs on the same day and in repeats long after.

  • 2011: 7.3 million viewers/6.1 rating*
  • 2012: 9.9 million viewers/7.3 rating (+43%)

The Ellen Degeneres ShowHer lively show has grown in appeal since Winfrey left the talk show arena, as her brand of wit and humanity have created a loyal audience of viewers.

  • 2011: 2.3 million viewers/2.3 rating
  • 2012: 3.3 million viewers/2.6 rating (+9%)

Dr. Oz: Mehmet Oz inherited the majority of Oprah's key time slots and her strong station lineup, and he has used that to build his own brand smartly.

  • 2011: 3.3 million viewers/2.4 rating
  • 2012: 3.8 million viewers/2.9 rating (+21%)

Maury: Entering its 15th season, the 73-year-old Povich's talk show has surged in popularity this past year, drawing a diverse audience that crosses ethnic and economic barriers.

  • 2011: 3.0 million viewers/2.1 rating
  • 2012: 3.3 million viewers/2.4 rating (+14%)

Live With Kelly: Kelly Ripa has kept the morning staple rolling even without Regis Philbin, giving ABC time to test out a series of potential co-hosts like NFL veteran Michael Strahan and SNL's Seth Meyers.

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  • 2011: 3.4 million viewers/2.6 rating
  • 2012: 3.5 million viewers/2.7 rating (+4%)

*Nielsen changed methodology so that Judge Judy benefited by counting multiple runs.

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