Talk shows arrive at a turning point

Mar 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Entertainment pundits were quick to pronounce the death of talk shows last week following announcements that Oprah Winfrey has retirement in her sights, “Sally Jessy Raphael” is being canceled and Jerry Springer was in court for antics on his show.
Those announcements followed earlier news on other longtime talk staples: Rosie O’Donnell is retiring and Jenny Jones is on the cancellation bubble.
True, the daytime business has changed, and clearly a chapter in the long-running talk business is wrapping up as syndicators re-evaluate financial models in the new economy. However, a slew of concepts in both program development and distribution could reawaken a genre that has been on a downward trend.
Of course, any good businessman knows that when one show leaves a station’s lineup, there’s open real estate to be had. “The Oprah Winfrey Show” may have been renewed, but it will end after the 2006 season. And “Sally” may have been canceled, but already stations are on the prowl for long-term replacements.
Opportunities abound
“There are more opportunities right now than there have been in years,” said Ed Wilson, president of NBC Enterprises, which currently has “The Other Half” on the air and “The John Walsh Show” set for fall. “But the key to taking advantage of that is to be careful to produce shows that appeal to the viewer-and not the buyer.”
Mr. Wilson said syndicators are extremely wary of incurring a $10 million deficit on a talk show today, unlike five years ago. Indeed, a survey of production costs for new talk shows found that the genre’s strips now average approximately $325,000 per week, which at 32 weeks of programs means a total of $10.4 million a year in production costs.
Most shows, with notable high-priced exceptions such as “Oprah” and “Live With Regis and Kelly,” came in between $250,000 per week and $400,000 per week in production costs. These figures are actually down 7 percent from similar start-up production costs five years ago.
Of course production costs rise every year, and they eventually can become too high as ratings erosion sets in, like it did with “Sally” and “Jenny Jones.” Although both strips have loyal audiences, costs typically increase 8 percent to 12 percent year to year, and unless license fees or barter revenue increases with it, profit margins will shrink. That leaves syndicators looking for additional forms of revenue for their series.
“Syndicators have to look at repurposing across the board to maximize their content,” said Steve Mosko, president of Columbia TriStar Domestic Television, which just renewed “Ricki Lake” and is currently developing a talk show for Jon Henson. “We’re still big believers in talk shows. Look at how long Sally and Jenny have been on the air. They should be commended for having an incredible run.”
This season, Studios USA’s “Crossing Over With John Edward” found success with runs in both syndication and on the Sci-Fi Channel. The show is now one of the top rookies in syndication. Next year, “Rosie O’Donnell Show” replacement “Caroline Rhea” will also head to a cable network when it debuts this fall.
“I think that very quickly, the dual platforming of John Edward and Carson Daly is going to become the norm,” said Sean Perry, head of the alternative programming department at the Los Angeles-based Endeavor talent agency. “This greatly lowers a distributor’s risk and allows a cable channel to have a program on the air that they might otherwise not be able to deliver.”
Rookies line up
Mr. Perry helped deliver two series about to hit the syndicated airwaves, “The Rob Nelson Show” for Twentieth Television and “The John Walsh Show” for NBC Enterprises. Both series have cleared virtually the entire country, thanks to group deals with Twentieth and Enterprises’ affiliated station groups, Fox and NBC, respectively. The trend was followed by Buena Vista Television’s “Wayne Brady Show” on the ABC owned-and-operated stations, King World Productions’ “Dr. Phil” on the CBS O&Os, Tribune Entertainment’s “Beyond With James Von Praagh” on the Tribune station group and “Good Day Live,” a talk show-newsmagazine hybrid from Twentieth on the Fox station group.
“We in the industry all have this `What did you do for me today?’ attitude,” said Robb Dalton, president of programming and production at Twentieth Television. “But in the end, in order to make a show work it takes two things: patience on behalf of the stations and the ability for the talent on the screen to connect with the viewer at home. There has been some excellent real estate that’s opened up recently, and it’s up to us to produce those kind of shows that will be able to work their way to the front of the line and grab those time slots.”
Patience has run short for stations in recent years. Each new series hopes to step up to the plate, break through and last longer than two years. The last syndicated talk show to do that was “Rosie.”
“There is an incredible opportunity for us as an industry to do something different and provide a change for the audience at large,” Mr. Perry said. “What I hope is that when a single-topic talk show goes away, we don’t automatically replace it with another single-topic strip. With audiences used to a television universe with more than 100 channels, it’s incumbent upon broadcast TV to do some things a little more daring than five years ago.”
`Dr. Phil’ adds up
Early predictions give each of the upcoming shows a solid chance, but clearly “Dr. Phil” brings forth the highest expectations. Numerous sources place production costs for the upcoming strip at more than $700,000 per week-a jaw-dropping amount for a freshman. However, it appears distributor King World is earning more than $900,000 in weekly license fees for the show and looks to add an additional half-million in barter revenues on top of that every week.
The numbers, however, didn’t add up so well for Studios USA,, which had to pull the plug on “Sally,” especially after failing to secure a clearance in New York. But as Studios USA Domestic Television President Steve Rosenberg noted, a 20-year run is something to be proud of.
“It is a testament to Sally’s talent and strength that during her tenure on the air, more than 60 other syndicated talk shows have come and gone,” he said. “Sally’s show will go down in the record books as an enormous success story, and she will always have our sincere thanks and gratitude.”
The departure of “Sally” has already caused several shows facing cancellation, such as “Jenny Jones,” “The Other Half” and “Ananda,” to scramble in hopes of a fresh start this fall as stations look to fill programming holes. Already, some shows are receiving upgrades, while others are looking to switch stations.
“Converse to popular opinion, stations are hungry for talk show programming-and they’ll do whatever it takes to make it work,” said one head of a talk show distributor. “So in the end, it’s up to us to make this work. We the studios have to figure out how to make money from this and experiment to make it work. Look at Twentieth, they did a slow rollout for `Good Day Live,’ and it will probably do great for them. Talk shows are here to stay-we just have to figure out not who the next Oprah is, but how to develop the next Oprah.”