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Regis Starts 16th Season Unfazed by Newcomers

Sep 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

What, Reege worry? Just because his 16th season in national syndication (and his 21st season on the air on New York’s WABC-TV) brings with it a little talk show competition from Ellen DeGeneres (who debuts Sept. 8) and Sharon Osbourne (Sept. 15), who will work solo, and “Living It Up! With Ali & Jack” (also Sept. 15)?
Does Regis Philbin need to remind anyone that he doesn’t have to whistle past the graveyard when he can stroll through a syndication graveyard littered with cue cards and careers associated with some 66 talk shows that have come and gone?
“Am I worried about what’s coming? Not really. I mean, it’s been so many years and we know that they’re there but we just keep doing what we’re doing. You just hope to do it as well or maybe even better,” Mr. “Live With Regis and Kelly” told TelevisionWeek over lunch at one of his favorite Upper West Side spots in late August.
“Am I supposed to be scared?” said Kelly Ripa, who joined “Live” in February 2001 after a long on-air search for Kathie Lee Gifford’s successor. In the two-plus years since, she has had her second and third child by former “All My Children” co-star Mark Consuelos, and settled so compatibly into the “Live” routine that she describes herself as Mr. Philbin’s “Mini-Me.”
Neither Mr. Philbin nor longtime executive producer Michael Gelman believes in jarring a loyal audience that last year earned a 3.5 national household rating, making the WABC-produced, Buena Vista Television-distributed “Live” the third-ranked talk show (behind veteran “Oprah” and then-freshman “Dr. Phil”).
So the 2003-04 season was set to begin Monday, Sept. 1, for “Live” with the traditional predictions from astrologer Sheldon Lewis, who sees only good things for “Live” and its principals, and with a few new touches to some of the show’s folksy favorites. Travel Trivia contestants who land on the wild card have a chance to win a Ford Focus or Freestar in addition to the all-expenses-paid vacation packages. The show will continue booking the big name guests it’s known for.
Viewer e-mails are running 3-to-1 that the show keep the “Word of the Day,” which started in July as a summer-only time killer but which has proved to be engaging as well as hilarious and educational.
Mr. Gelman is planting the seeds for a new viewer-involvement tradition with the Relly [as in Regis and Kelly] Awards. Viewers are voting on a number of categories that celebrate “Live” traditions, such as best bands (“Live” has given early TV breaks to acts including Destiny’s Child, Avril Lavigne, Hootie and the Blowfish and the Backstreet Boys), best makeovers, best guests, best gender-bender moments, best hosts and best guest hosts.
The latter category has produced a number of competitors over the years. Rosie O’Donnell was the most successful of the stars-George Hamilton, Howie Mandel, Tom Arnold, Jay Mohr, Martin Short, Donny Osmond, Suzanne Somers, Lisa Rinna, Caroline Rhea, Leeza Gibbons and Marilu Henner, to name a few-who have landed talk shows after guest-hosting on “Live.”
“On a personality-based show, the hosts have to have personality. And they have to have a personality that is not just big but is something special and likable. It is easier to be just a lot of personality, but those types of people often come off as annoying,” Mr. Gelman said. “It’s hard to have a reason-to-watch personality and be likable. And it’s even harder to be likable on a long-term basis. Then you have to catch the lightning in a bottle.”
Of course, with the lightning in a bottle comes the supermarket tabloid stampede. While she was being lightly air-brushed in the makeup room before a recent show, Ms. Ripa riffed on her treatment by the make-it-up press in which she has become a staple.
“When I was brand-new here, it was, `Poor Kelly, Regis and Kathie Lee gang up on her, plotting the comeback. Poor Kelly, poor Kelly, poor, poor Kelly, poor pregnant Kelly. Now it’s like, `Vicious, back-stabbing Kelly, negotiating her own contract,”’ Ms. Ripa said. “I’ve apparently been negotiating my own contract here for three years. I can’t wait for this deal to be done because I want to see how many millions I can take from Regis in the end. At last check, it was $8 million that I was taking specifically from his paycheck and putting into my pocket.”
Ms. Ripa, who starred on ABC’s “All My Children” for 10 years, this year will be starring in “Hope & Faith,” which is considered a linchpin in ABC’s plan to resurrect the good old days of the TGIF sitcom block. She showcased her talent for slapstick in July as a host of Montreal’s Just For Laughs comedy festival.
As for Mr. Philbin, 70, who still does 12 to 15 nightclub dates per year and who could go with wife Joy to an A-list event every night should he choose, his new three-year contract starts this month.
And how long does he envision keeping up his precisely timed morning routine? Every morning he competes with Mr. Gelman to be the first to get the local overnights, which often show “Live” was the highest-rated show on any Big Apple station the day before. Then he walks across the street from his luxury apartment to his office and listens to Dean Martin for a few minutes until Mr. Gelman comes in at about 8:42 a.m. for a brief chat about potential topics for the signature “host chat” segment “Living It Up!” plans to adopt. He heads for the makeup room at 8:50 for a quick spray of foundation makeup, a snip of any unruly, graying hairs, a scan of come cue cards and perhaps a brief encounter with a guest or the child of a guest. Then it’s onto the tinier-than-it-looks set for an hour of banter with no safety net but Ms. Ripa and Mr. Gelman.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Mr. Philbin said. “Three more years? Does that sound right to you?”