Fergie talking, but are stations listening?

Jan 13, 2003  •  Post A Comment

After the slew of deals last week sealing prime markets for the fall 2003 syndication season, industry eyes are turning to Universal’s upcoming strip “Fergie,” and observers are wondering where the future lies for the talk show hosted by the Duchess of York.
However, Universal executives aren’t willing to be bullied into an unfit station match. In fact, they, like Sarah Ferguson, are prepared to handle challenges on their own terms.
Steve Rosenberg, president of Universal Television Enterprises, is quick to note that in a vertically integrated business environment launching a series isn’t the same process it used to be. However, he believes quality wins out in the end.
“When you spend so much time developing a good product, it’s imperative to match the series with the place you feel it would be most successful,” he said. “If the timing isn’t right then you should wait. I would absolutely consider a January launch if I felt that was the best fit for `Fergie,’ because we’re very enthusiastic about the program as well as the talent in front of and behind the camera.”
With a quick-paced pilot featuring segments ranging from an interview with LL Cool J to “Duchess for a Day,” “Fergie” has been one of several high-profile talk shows out to make a dent come fall. For Ms. Ferguson, the challenge of a talk show was intimidating at first but a natural extension of her career.
“I didn’t know if I had the confidence to do it in the beginning, because once you have been through a 12-year barrage by the British press, you really do not have much confidence in yourself,” she said. “My first time out for the pilot I was very nervous, because you always think you can do these things but it’s not that easy. Fortunately I listened to my producer. She was a rock. I realized how important it was to play with and incorporate the audience. In the end, I was pleased with how it all came out.”
The series will incorporate tales from the Duchess’s life mixed with interviews and segments designed to empower audiences to take on challenges they face in their everyday lives.
“I consider myself a vehicle to tell the truth of what I have been through,” the Duchess said. “In everyday life we are surrounded by all these negative views, who has done this or that, are we going to war or not. What about cherishing the actual day and moment we live in and giving our children a strong, positive foundation to live on? That’s why I was determined to make something that makes audiences feel good.”
The Sarah franchise
Clearly, Sarah Ferguson has become a brand of her own. Her newest book, “What I Know Now-Simple Lessons Learned the Hard Way,” recently arrived in bookstores. In 1997, Weight Watchers International named Ms. Ferguson its U.S. spokesperson. She continues to make public appearances across the United States to promote weight loss and a healthy lifestyle.
“When we taped the pilot there were literally people running from blocks away just to catch a glimpse of her,” said executive producer Amy Rosenblum. “She’s a terrific businesswoman and she has gone through all the ups and downs that a viewer can relate to, from a divorce to weight issues. When Universal came to me with the project I thought the idea of `Fergie’ sounded very weird. But I knew when I met her that she has a natural appeal that transcends the airwaves.”
The public’s familiarity with Ms. Ferguson, dating back to her globally televised wedding to Prince Andrew, and her relatability with everyday families were powerful factors in the decision to put her on the air, Mr. Rosenberg said.
“There are always talents out there in which it’s difficult to raise awareness, but there’s no doubt that the Duchess isn’t faced with that problem,” he said. “In addition to that, going through a divorce, being a single working mom and her battles with weight and overcoming that are all things that daytime viewers can relate to.”
Ironically, after her struggle to avoid the press with her weight issues, it was those issues that brought her to television.
“I’ve had a weight problem since I was 12 and faced all those issues of self-esteem and depression,” Ms. Ferguson said. “When I started meeting with people through Weight Watchers and hearing their stories on stage I realized it would be fab to put this on television and show the public how they’ve managed.”
A broadcasting veteran
Her experience on camera is considerable. Her work in television has included stints as a special correspondent for NBC’s “Today” show and as host of her own issues-oriented talk show, “Sarah, Surviving Life,” on Britain’s SkyOne Television. In 2001, she presented a BBC documentary filmed in India titled “In Search of the Spirit,” and she has been a substitute host on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” Sarah’s debut in television broadcasting came in 1996, when she hosted the ABC prime-time special “Adventures with the Duchess.”
But the Duchess hopes it’s her relationship with the Universal project that sticks.
“Amy is as mad as I am and she believes in me, poor thing,” she said. “When I was out sabotaging myself and convincing myself that I wasn’t going to be able to go through the show, for some extraordinary reason she kept on persevering. But she’s like me-we have the same beliefs and we both plan to keep the integrity of the show. It would be easy for the producer to not listen to the talent and say, no, this is what brings ratings. But we both believe that ratings and integrity can go hand in hand.”