What's Behind the Decline of the Celebrity Talk Show

Illustration by: John Ueland

Katie and Anderson? Gone. Meredith? On life support. How the rise of live panels, gossipfests and an aging audience in the post-Oprah era mean no new big-name launches this fall.

A version of this story first appeared in the May 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The allure of the daytime talk show is undeniable: a daily platform, a set schedule and, in success, tens of millions of dollars. But since Oprah Winfrey ended her game-changing gabfest in 2011, the single-host talk show has fallen out of favor.

This coming fall, for the first time in years, no talk show fronted by a high-profile host is scheduled to launch. And the only such show from fall 2014 still on the air, NBCUniversal's The Meredith Vieira Show, is struggling.

On the flip side, consider the dozen or so contenders whose pricey shows haven't lasted more than two years: Katie Couric, Jeff Probst, Anderson Cooper, Bethenny Frankel, Bonnie Hunt, Nate Berkus, Ricki Lake and Queen Latifah.

In fact, only Steve Harvey and Wendy Williams have thrived in the space as daytime's landscape has become dominated by The Ellen DeGeneres Show (variety as much as talk), probing psychological analysis (Dr. Phil), medical mysteries (The Dr. Oz Show), food talk (Rachael Ray, The Chew), panels (The View, The Real, The Talk) and so-called conflict talkers (Maury, The Jerry Springer Show).

Why are so many star-driven talk shows failing? Many blame the cost of launching with an A-list personality and a chasm between modern celebrity and the appeal required to keep viewers day in, day out. "It's the chemistry between the host and the producers and with the audience," says CBS daytime head Angelica McDaniel. "Viewers pick up on that."

Latifah received a huge promotional launch from Sony TV and a strong station lineup but lasted only two seasons. "People liked the personality she demonstrated in movies," says a TV syndication distribution executive, "but that's not who she is. One thing about daytime: You can't fake it."

"These talk shows are with celebrities who have huge name value," says David Perler, executive producer of Wendy, "but the name value doesn't hold up. If you can't deliver and you don't have strong opinions and you just want to talk niceties with celebrities on the couch about their upcoming projects, I don't think people want that anymore."

"We have so much access to stars," says Sean Compton, Tribune Broadcasting Co.'s president of production. "You can watch TMZ or five other shows and see what they ate for dinner last night. So I don't think being a celebrity is enough. It's really in the subject they are talking about. It's how they deliver. Their personalities have to resonate with the audience."

"We see actors and celebrities more in real life than in their work environment," adds Perler, "because of the exposure in social media, the tweeting, Facebook and all the shows that show them unmasked. So it's not fascinating to tune in just because Harrison Ford is on the couch."

Networks also are dealing with aging viewers. In 2011, 64 percent of the daytime audience was over 50, according to Nielsen. That number now is 71 percent. Advertisers in daytime covet viewers 25 to 54, especially women. That demo has fallen from 38 percent to 33 percent since 2011.

To woo younger viewers, distributors are turning to such gossip and panel shows as TMZ Live (Warner Bros.), The Real (Warner Bros.) and Dish Nation (Fox). Stephen Brown, Fox TV's executive vp programming and development, says his studio no longer seeks big stars. "The Fox philosophy is, we don't rely on big personalities to drive our shows," he says.

"It's hard for one personality to carry a talk show on their own," adds Brown. "We saw that with Anderson Cooper, with Latifah, with Katie and Ricki."

That's why, says Brown, the current trend is panels — or at least couples. Fox also has taken to doing limited-run summer tests for shows on a handful of stations before making a big commitment. That was how Wendy started and what propelled The Real to become one of the surprise hits of the past season.

This summer Fox is testing two talk shows with couples: the first stars little-known actors Boris Kodjoe and Nicole Ari Parker while the other features Ice-T and his wife, Coco.

"When you're matching people up you have to rely on chemistry," says Brown. "That's one of the bigger reasons we're going with a married couple — because they have instant chemistry."

Studios that have had success with stars are hesitant, too. "The ambition of an Ellen, Dr. Phil, Katie or Meredith is that they are very expensive, come with high expectations that they will be successful and involve an elevated level of risk," says Ken Werner, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution.

Werner also warns that station groups have become more risk averse in the wake of the failure of many of these high-profile shows.

"If stations are reluctant to share in that risk in terms of cash license fees and time periods," says Werner, "that will undoubtedly affect the supply. On the other hand, once one has an established franchise like Ellen they pay elevated dividends for stations, distributors and talent for many, many years."

Disney's Katie was said to have cost $30 million to $40 million a year to produce (including $10 million for the host). "It's got to work really big, or you have a really big deficit," says Debmar-Mercury co-president Ira Bernstein.

Debmar-Mercury, a division of Lionsgate, has worked with Fox on a number of summer test runs. "We pound the table about testing," says Bernstein. "You go out with something for four or five weeks and at least you can make an objective judgment on ratings. Also creatively you can look at it and say, 'Does the person have it or not?'"

Wendy Williams wasn't a big national name when she did her test run on Fox, just a local radio personality. "We learned a lot through the test," says Williams. "It gave me a chance to sort of polish myself a little bit for middle America. Here comes the black girl with big boobs and wigs and she's laughing too loud. I'm a lot and I know it."

Couric, looking back, feels "the expectations might have been a little to high given the shifting landscape of television."

"Also for me, I wanted to do a show that had high production values, so we did many taped pieces," she adds. "I really wanted it to feel like a news magazine. … As a result I think the production costs were pretty high."

Couric also feels she may have asked too much of the audience. "People like to have fun in daytime, and I think that's one of the reason Wendy and especially Ellen are so successful. They're really fun, a nice breather. I was asking a lot of viewers to say, 'Let's talk about sexual assault in the military' or interviewing someone who was wrongly convicted. I don't think there was enough of an appetite for that during the day."

Even star-driven shows are changing. The Wendy Williams Show, which lures more than 2.1 million viewers a week, took off when the host extended her "Hot Topics" chat segment to as long as half of the program. It also went live.

"If you're not live, you just miss the boat," says Williams, "and the ability to talk about things like what happened last night on Dancing With the Stars."

That's a big change from past hits, which avoided topicality to allow for airing summer reruns. Wendy produces as many as 260 new shows a year, compared with about 170 for most syndicated talkers.

"We try to take even less time off in the summer than in the past," says Perler. "When we do repeats, we try to repeat recent shows. For instance if we have repeats on Friday, we try to repeat an episode from earlier that week so the Hot Topics is still current."

The celeb-talk genre isn't dead, of course. Newcomer hosts eyed for fall 2016 include Harry Connick Jr. for NBCU and Suze Orman for Warner Bros. But neither is guaranteed; more panel shows and news-driven half-hours likely will take their place. Says McDaniel, "It's what is resonating today with our viewing habits and our social engagement patterns."

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