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Daytime Breaks Mold

Aug 25, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The upcoming season may be the end of, or at least a pause in, the daytime clone wars as syndicators feel the influence of cable programming. Daytime schedules were once flooded with clones of “Ricki Lake,” “Judge Judy” or “Blind Date,” but the new season is breaking from the copycat mentality of the past decade.
The five primary first-run strips hitting television screens for the first time during the 2003-04 season-“The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “The Sharon Osbourne Show,” “Starting Over,” “Living It Up! With Ali & Jack” and January’s Ryan Seacrest project-don’t replicate the look or mentality of last season’s syndie sensation “Dr. Phil.” Instead, each is attempting to carve its own niche by looking to hit cable formats, particularly those found on MTV, as they seek to become the elusive breakout hit.
“This is typical of what happens in a marketplace when you feel you have a saturation of typical genres,” said Bob Cook, president and chief operating officer of Twentieth Television, which in January will offer Ryan Seacrest’s strip, which is being developed with MTV’s “Total Request Live” in mind. “Cable is a smaller market, and when a show becomes a hit in that forum, you have to ask yourself if that format is a microcosm of something that has a larger mass appeal.”
Of course, looking toward hit cable formats is nothing new in the industry. Consolidation and cable have prompted distributors to update their take on growing cable audiences. Fading off of station lineups are new court shows, relationship shows, game shows and newsmagazines. Instead, a feisty blend of many nontraditional launches and formats has come out of the woodwork. Even the off-net side of the business is finding new, experimental blood with the off-cable debut of Sony’s “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”
Throw in the nontraditional launch of Buena Vista’s “Wayne Brady” to a national audience after a slow rollout last season, with Twentieth poised to do the same as “ClassmatesTV” and “Ambush Makeover” grow more established and daytime’s own makeover is officially under way.
“Forget labels and pedigrees,” said John Weiser, executive VP of Sony Pictures Television. “The nontraditional aspects that are blossoming in syndication from formats to rollouts to launch dates are speaking to the new economics and viewership levels in the business. What that means, however, is that there are more opportunities to try and be creative and take advantage of those changes. As for cable, syndicators shouldn’t view them as competition. Instead, they should look to them as a farm league and a source of inspiration.”
Syndicators will face, as usual, an uphill climb, with one in five first-run strips every year considered to be successful, the same ratio as network television programming. However, the very definition of “success” continues to dwindle every season as audience defections to cable and the Internet continue to grow. This puts distributors, particularly nonvertically integrated companies, in a quandary. Do they risk overspending to attract top talent that stations would be interested in, or do they invest in a cheaper format that is safer for the bottom line but would be a more difficult sell?
Either way, audiences are going to be finicky.
“In this day and age you have to come out of the block with a new show pretty much working with audiences or it’s over, especially when you’re a nonvertical and don’t own your own stations,” said Dick Robertson, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. “In this day and age there is no time to fix a show after its launch. That, combined with fewer turns at the plate due to consolidation, means that you have to have a keen eye in development or get lost in the race.”
Warner Bros. clearly has the two highest-profile rookie shows, which will launch in September, having landed both Ms. DeGeneres and Ms. Osbourne for separate talk shows. Mr. Robertson said the company is “spending a fortune” to promote the shows to audiences and to convince station group owners that going outside their own companies for new series is a solid investment.
“We have been given an enormous opportunity by both the NBC [which will carry `Ellen’] and Tribune [`Sharon’] station groups,” Mr. Robertson said. “These are two companies that have spectacular television stations, yet their vertically integrated program operations have been challenged. For them to give us this opportunity, we will take it extremely seriously.”
Ms. DeGeneres’ show is described by Warner Bros. and Telepictures executives as a “traditional talk/variety show in daytime with story-driven comedy and top celebrity guests.” Cable network Oxygen will telecast episodes of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” one week after they air on stations, weeknights at 10 p.m. and on weekends.
“Ellen DeGeneres has 20 years of experience in this business with a proven track record of entertaining people and succeeding at it,” said Jim Paratore, president of Telepictures. “If you’ve ever seen her comedy, it’s all about storytelling, and that’s what drives the top of the talk/variety genre in daytime. In addition to that, because of her credibility within the Hollywood community, she has the ability to attract real A-list stars. So I think it’s going to be a real quality franchise in daytime that will attract that young upscale audience that has been leaving broadcast and going to cable.”
Perhaps reaffirming the power of cable, Telepictures capitalized on the success of MTV’s “The Osbournes” by tapping family matriarch Sharon Osbourne to host a multi-topic show that will feature a mix of celebrities and musical performances and address issues the host feels strongly about.
“`Sharon’ will air in the transitional hour, with a lot of 5 p.m. clearances, and is a very different program for very different viewers,” Mr. Paratore said. “Her show will skew much more young, targeting the 18 to 34 crowd, and will offer a much different appeal.”
Cable, particularly MTV, also proved a source of inspiration for NBC Enterprises, which will offer the voyeur-driven strip “Starting Over” from Bunim/Murray Productions, creator of MTV’s “The Real World” and “Road Rules.” “Starting Over” is cleared in 93 percent of the country.
“It’s exciting to get a chance to see and work on some shows that are new and different to daytime audiences,” said Ed Wilson, president of NBC Enterprises. “As we look to the success of reality programs in prime time and cable, we felt that this would be the right time to introduce this kind of format to national daytime audiences. Taking that into account, I believe that this bet is a good bet, it’s the right show for the daypart, and we wanted to go left when everyone else was heading right.”
Also eyeing the voyeur-reality genre is Twentieth Television, which is testing “Classmates” and “Ambush Makeover” in various time slots on several of its Fox owned-and-operated stations. Those strips, combined with the national launch of Ryan Seacrest’s show, provide an opportunity to grow audiences through nontraditional series, according to Mr. Cook.
“What we’re trying to do is make the daytime menu more fun,” he said. “That’s not to say we’re not looking at traditional talk and court shows. We do look at them all. However, you have to continually try to find the next breakout hit, and many times that can come from a new genre hybrid.”
At Sony, the cable influence will be a bit more direct this season. The distributor had sold off-cable runs of the TBS series “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” to stations, converting the hour-long reality series into two half-hour shows. For Mr. Weiser, the opportunity to air the show to potential new audiences was too good to pass up.
“Stations were relishing the opportunity to showcase the No. 1 program on the No. 1 cable network,” he said. “We have already established a connection with audiences and advertisers, so how do stations look at that and not want a piece of it?’
Perhaps the most traditional of the series to hit the airwaves this fal
l will be King World’s “Living It Up! With Ali & Jack.” The series is cleared in over 90 percent of the country.
“One of our strengths is that we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” said show executive producer Bruce McKay. “Instead, the strength of the show lies in our hosts. They are such an unusual duo with a rare chemistry that I believe soon audiences will see that this is a slickly produced, fast-paced program, and normally that equates [with] a hit.”
Added one syndication president, “Like the NFL, we’re all talking about why our teams are going to the Super Bowl this year before the season even starts. But we all aren’t going to score. We keep analyzing and researching, but in the end, you just never know what’s going to work.”