The launch of “Living It Up! With Ali & Jack” is still more than three months away, but there’s already a flurry of activity at the show’s production offices on the far west side of Manhattan. Just one day after the new offices have been declared open for business, there are boxes to be unpacked, phone calls to be returned and, of course, industry gossip to be exchanged.
The brightly decorated offices-which are so spanking new that the computer screens still have factory labels on them-is abuzz with the news that Martha Stewart is about to be indicted. It seems that everyone has an opinion about the home-decorating maven, who just happens to host a syndicated show, which like “Living It Up!” is distributed by King World.
“This wouldn’t be happening if she were a man,” said one “Living It Up!” staffer. “She should have hired a crisis manager from day one,” added another as images of Ms. Stewart flickered on the TV in the background.
Although King World has renewed “Martha Stewart Living” for another year, its ratings are flagging and Ms. Stewart’s future is unclear. In many markets, Ms. Stewart’s show will be bumped to a late-night time slot to make room for “Living It Up!”
As a result, everyone involved with the new live syndicated talk show starring bubbly blonde comedian Alexandra Wentworth and veteran newsman Jack Ford knows that whatever the future holds for Ms. Stewart, expectations are high for “Living It Up!” Roger King, CEO of CBS Enterprises and King World Productions, said it takes an investment of more than $20 million to launch this kind of show.
So aside from the personal investment the staff and talent have made by signing on to the fledgling show there’s also the sense that the future of the syndication business is at least partially at stake here. Sure, “Dr. Phil,” which is produced by Paramount and distributed by King World, is a ratings champ, but few other syndicated shows introduced last year will return this fall.
“If you look over the past four or five years you’ll see 16 or 17 shows coming out every year and not a single one surviving,” said “Living It Up!” executive producer Bruce McKay, who has produced over 3,000 hours of syndicated programming, including stints at “The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder,” “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers,” “People’s Court” and “Rolanda.”
For evidence of how difficult it is to launch a successful new syndicated show, one need only look at King World’s track record. In recent years King World, a division of Viacom, which also owns Paramount, has suffered through expensive failures with daily shows starring Ananda Lewis, Judge James Curtis, Martin Short and Roseanne. While it has long-running hits such as “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy!” “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Hollywood Squares” and top off-network fare, most experts believe developing new shows the company will own is a high priority if King World is to remain separate from Paramount TV in the long term.
Among the new crop of syndicated shows this fall, “Ali & Jack” is one of the most highly anticipated, earning a vote of confidence from station managers. “Living It Up!” has been cleared in 88 percent of the country, on stations representing 29 of the top 30 markets (Ms. Wentworth’s hometown of Washington is the one unsigned market).
“You’re looking at a show that has a solid concept and has the potential for being very saleable,” said Bill Carroll, VP, director of programming, Katz Television Group.
“Living It Up!” will compete against a slew of new star-driven talk shows premiering this fall, including “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “The Sharon Osbourne Show.” However, in many markets, Ali and Jack will be going head to head with Regis and Kelly.
“I think people are going to watch us because they’re interested in watching us not because they’re interested in comparing us to anybody,” said 53-year-old Jack Ford, who was until recently an ABC News anchor. Along with Mr. Ford, nobody on the “Living It Up!” team has anything but high praise for “Regis and Kelly.” “We’ll feel wonderful if people compare us to `Regis and Kelly,’ because Regis and Kelly are a great team. Regis is an institution,” said “Living It Up!” supervising producer Rob Dauber, adding, “Ali and Jack aren’t Regis and Kelly.”
Ali and Jack may not be Regis and Kelly, but their new show will have many of the same features as “Live With Regis and Kelly,” including live talk, cutesy banter and celebrity guests. It’s the live aspect in particular that appealed to Ms. Wentworth, who, aside from being Mrs. George Stephanopolous, is best known for her dead-on Sharon Stone and Cindy Crawford impersonations when she was on “In Living Color” and her appearances on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”
“Live television is fun and any mistakes you make are fun. It’s not like news or scripted taped pieces,” said the 36-year-old Ms. Wentworth. “You trip. You fall. You spill your coffee, mess up your lines. It’s funny. It’s OK.”
If it succeeds, there’s no doubt that more syndication executives will seek to duplicate the innovative way that “Living It Up!” was developed. Unlike most shows that are created to highlight the talents of a proven star, in the case of “Living It Up!,” King World sought out the talent after developing the concept. Even more unusual, the idea for the show was generated by King World’s sales team.
“We were hearing from stations that they want good sellable product that was not very controversial,” said Mike Stornello, the former senior VP, domestic TV sales who is now senior VP of development for King World. “From that perspective, we created this project and then went out to find the right talent to drive it.”
After testing numerous personalities in front of a live audience and then conducting focus groups with the top four teams at the CBS Research facility at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the development team decided on the dynamic duo of Ali and Jack.
Mr. Stornello described the moment the two stars were first paired as “lighting in a bottle.” While neither is a household name, they’ve both had successful careers and, more important, have strong on-screen chemistry.
According to Mr. King, while most syndicated shows have a 10 percent chance of success, “Living It Up!” has a 50-50 chance of hitting. How can he be so confident in such a tough market? “We did a year’s worth of research and spent $1 million toward presentation, development, research, salaries, bonuses and hiring people,” he said. “If you’re going to penny pinch, don’t get into it in the first place. You’re cutting the throat of the show when you cut down on promotion and you don’t hire enough producers,” he said on the phone from his suburban New Jersey home.
“You can spend $20 million and have it lose, but at least you did everything right. You have to do everything right in this very complicated business called syndication and then you have to be lucky.”
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles tracing the events leading to the launch this fall of “Living It Up! With Ali & Jack.”