Weeks into the new season, the distributors of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “Starting Over”-the only first-run rookie strips from 2003-04 to earn a sophomore run-are leveraging the achievements they’ve had this fall.
Launched in a crowded syndie marketplace that included high-profile projects from the likes of Ryan Seacrest and Sharon Osbourne, “Ellen” and “Starting Over” survived last season and have continued to perform this season by tapping into a specific audience-younger-skewing female demos.
“Ellen’s” distributor, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, is currently seeking-and in some cases getting-time period upgrades from morning to afternoon slots. The distributor also expects to get a hike in license fees for its expected return in fall 2005. “Starting Over,” which is distributed by NBC Universal, sister company to the NBC owned-and-operated stations that carry the show in many major markets, has been a far more modest ratings performer than “Ellen.” A license fee hike is not as much a factor as it is for “Ellen,” which also was launched primarily on the NBC O&Os. But “Starting Over” is using its performance to vie for better time periods.
The shows couldn’t be more different. “Ellen,” hosted by a well-known TV personality, made an immediate splash with viewers and critics with its breezy celebrity interviews and A-list musical guests. In contrast, “Starting Over,” which serializes the struggle of ordinary women coming to grips with their problems through the use of cable TV-style reality storytelling, garnered little media attention and underwhelming household ratings. For the first four weeks of 2004-05, “Ellen” is up 29 percent in households from last year, growing from a 1.4 to 1.8 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. But in women 18 to 34, “Ellen” is up 25 percent (1.0 versus 0.8), 33 percent in women 18 to 49 (1.2 versus 0.9) and 44 percent among women 25 to 54 (1.3 to 0.9).
Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming of Katz Television Group, said “Ellen’s” performance fuels Telepictures’ drive to improve clearances.
“What ultimately takes place is when Warner Bros. went into the marketplace in the first year, and to a certain extent in year two, they faced a challenge,” he said. “Now they have proven she’s up to the challenge. The potential to upgrade exists. If you were to look at past patterns, this would be comparable to `Rosie O’Donnell.’ Usually when there is competitive pressure in markets, that increases the license fee. If the license fee increases, that also means the show has to be placed in a more visible daypart, which means if it’s in daytime it will move to early fringe.”
Jim Paratore, executive VP, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, was quick to promote “Ellen” as a show that could easily move from morning time periods to the afternoon.
“Our strongest stories are in early fringe,” Mr. Paratore said. “We make a nice companion with either `Dr. Phil’ or `Oprah.’ We’re also competitive against them because we skew younger. They beat us overall, but we beat them with the younger audience.”
So far this season, “Ellen” has benefited from upgrades that were negotiated for its second-year renewal. In Atlanta on WGCL-TV, the show has moved from 10 a.m. (ET) to 4 p.m., while it has switched to stronger stations in Tampa, Fla., Orlando, Fla., St. Louis and Baltimore. “Ellen” has also benefited from the weaknesses of some of its newest competitors. On Sept. 27 in Dallas, NBC owned-and-operated station KXAS-TV returned the show to its 3 p.m. (CT) news lead-in time slot, trading out “The Jane Pauley Show,” which had initially replaced “Ellen” on Aug. 30.
“As for distribution, it’s continuing to lock up the right real estate for the show,” Mr. Paratore said of exploiting the show’s performance. “That’s been made easier by the demands of the marketplace.”
Mr. Paratore said he also is doing all he can to drive license fees through competition.
“We have multiple stations in every market who want the show if it’s available,” he said. While “Ellen” came back for its second season with few if any tweaks in terms of the show’s production, “Starting Over” took its title literally in terms of changes for 2004-05. The show left Chicago to shoot in Los Angeles, and its stable of life coaches was shuffled.
“They’ve tightened up the production, and in some markets they have moved time periods, so they are more correctly programmed,” Mr. Carroll said. “All of those things have helped.”
For the first four weeks of fall 2004, “Starting Over” is up 22 percent from fall 2003 in households (1.1 versus 0.9), 11 percent in women 18 to 34 (1.0 versus 0.9), 25 percent in women 18 to 49 (1.0 versus 0.8) and 29 percent in women 25 to 54 (0.9 versus 0.7).
“It certainly wasn’t at the top of most folks’ lists [of shows] that they were optimistic about,” Mr. Carroll said of “Starting Over’s” performance last season. “I think now when you see it in relation to some of the shows that premiered this year, it has to be looked upon in a more positive way. Many stations that had high hopes last year were disappointed. Sometimes just getting that second year and not having the challenge to launch with an unknown, that’s helped them.”
Barry Wallach, president of NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution, said the show’s return for a second season was far from certain.
“It was a tough decision, because the ratings were not as high as we wanted them to be,” he said. “People really liked the show-it was a very loyal audience. We felt good about the show itself, and numerically we were seeing the trend going the right way. By the time the May book came around and renewals were done, the vast majority of the markets were up book to book to book.”
“Starting Over” finished the November 2003 sweeps with a 1.0 household rating, but grew to a 1.1 rating in February 2004 and a 1.2 in May 2004, an 18 percent increase from its first to third sweeps. But in women 18 to 49, “Starting Over” began with a 0.9 in November, growing 22 percent to a 1.1 rating by May. Among women 18 to 34, the growth was more pronounced-“Starting Over” started with a 0.9 in November before growing 44 percent to a 1.3 in May.
NBC Universal also ran with the news that “Starting Over” had the highest concentration of women 18 to 49 viewers of any daytime strip for the week ended Sept. 26.
“We’re almost where `Ricki Lake’ was, but `Ricki’ wasn’t on traditional affiliates,” Mr. Wallach said of the show’s audience composition in terms of young women.
Like “Ellen,” Mr. Wallach said “Starting Over” could benefit from shakeouts in the marketplace as more newcomers fall by the wayside.
“I think you’ll see quite a bit of shifting,” he said. “`Starting Over’ is one of those shows we would expect to be in a better position in midseason. The negative is there is not a tremendous opportunity since it [has] a pretty good lineup as it is.”
The strength among young women and its improvement season to season has already paid off-two weeks ago NBC Universal confirmed the show was getting a full pickup for 2004-05.
“From the station perspective, it’s a great promotional platform,” Mr. Wallach said. “From an advertiser’s perspective, you’ve got value there. Yeah, the household [rating] is lower than a station would want, but most people are past that now.”