The Queen of Talk is still the mistress of her domain.
Once again Oprah Winfrey is No. 1 on TelevisionWeek’s 2005 list of the Most Bankable Stars in Syndication. In results that show our jury of panelists sticking with proven winners, Phil McGraw and Jerry Seinfeld-last year’s No. 2 and No. 3, respectively-were also voted into the same spots this year.
Stability is the name of the game in syndication, with seven of the top 10 vote-getters being veterans of our yearly survey that polls syndicated talent’s ability to draw audiences and wield power within the business.
Our jury was asked to name and rank 10 personalities who either appeared in syndication in the 2004 calendar year or were scheduled to debut sometime in 2005. Only one show that bowed in the previous calendar year was represented on the list. The ensemble cast of the hit CBS franchise-turned-King World-weekend-syndie-powerhouse “CSI” debuted at No. 10, while Jane Pauley, who was ranked No. 8 last year, was among those who fell off the list.
The only star scheduled to launch in the coming year to make the list was a syndicated standby set to return to television-the currently incarcerated Martha Stewart. Though supermodel and daytime talk show hopeful Tyra Banks came close to cracking the top 10, many rookies currently trying to make it-Pat Croce, Tony Danza and Larry Elder among them-couldn’t compete in a field where seasoned veterans dominate the landscape.
For 2005 our jury consisted of a wide range of syndication experts: Bill Carroll, Katz Television Group VP and director of group programming; Paramount-based show creator and producer Claude Brooks; Jim Chabin, CEO of Promax&BDA; Lynn Stepanian, senior VP of programming and distribution for The WB 100+; Chuck Larsen, president of October Moon; Alex Paen, founder and president of Telco Productions; John Rash, senior VP, Campbell-Mithun; Craig Robinson, general manager of Columbus, Ohio, NBC owned-and-operated station WCMH-TV; and Tim Spengler, executive VP and director of national broadcast, Initiative.
Besides Ms. Stewart and the cast of “CSI,” a pair of newcomers broke into the top 10: long-time “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek and uber-contestant Ken Jennings were paired together, recognizing the show’s increased ratings and notoriety thanks to Mr. Jennings’ record-breaking winning streak.
But it is still Ms. Winfrey’s world we live in, with one panelist describing her as someone with “style, class and a keen sense of what her audience wants.”
As she takes the top spot for the fourth straight year, Ms. Winfrey’s bankability shows no sign of waning. Her King World contract runs through the 2010-11 season.
1. Oprah Winfrey
It turns out 25 is the magic number. After years of speculation about her retirement, Ms. Winfrey in August 2004 announced she would stay with her talk show through 2011, which will mark 25 years on the air for her top-rated syndicated powerhouse. The powers that be at King World have to be pleased, because that gives Ms. Winfrey six more seasons to develop and spin off more talent to their own shows.
“What can we say?” wrote one panelist who voted her No. 1. “She has the magic. She has the staying power. She speaks to the viewers.”
After launching the instant hit “Dr. Phil,” Ms. Winfrey is said to be working on vehicles for “Oprah” regulars Paige Davis and Nate Berkus. Her brand is so powerful that other syndicators are picking up “Oprah”-tested talent in the hopes of building off her success. This year, one of the highest-profile pieces of new development is supermodel Tyra Banks’ talk strip. Ms. Banks has made a name for herself with Ms. Winfrey’s audience, thanks to her makeovers on that show. She is now developing her own series with Telepictures.
Ms. Winfrey is hardly resting on her laurels. She made headlines at the start of this season with her surprise giveaway of a Pontiac G6 to every member of her audience, earning her national headlines and her highest season-opening household ratings since 1996.
“Who needs the presidency?” wrote another panelist. “She is becoming the first lady of the world.”
2. Phil McGraw
Now in his show’s third season, Phil McGraw has been able to effectively quiet the naysayers who initially thought his in-your-face approach would wear thin.
“Many said he wouldn’t be able to sustain the momentum and that this formula wouldn’t have legs,” wrote one panelist. “They were wrong.”
Renewed until 2009, “Dr. Phil” is consistently the No. 2 talk strip after genre leader and big sister “Oprah.” But like his King World mentor and stablemate, Mr. McGraw has used his success to score upgrades to the pre-news hour and prime access, not to mention prime-time runs in San Francisco and other markets.
“People always need help,” said another panelist. “He’s mastered brutal honesty.”
He’s also mastered the art of dealing with interpersonal communication on television. Mr. McGraw landed interviews with both the Bushes and the Kerrys just weeks before the presidential election, proving that he is television’s standard bearer when it comes to understanding how married couples deal with everything from child rearing to marital conflict.
The fact that he’s hardly a shrinking violet in a marketplace that demands that talent stick out from the crowd hasn’t hurt him either.
“Can you say tough love?” wrote a third panelist. “If you don’t watch his show he will personally come to your house, kick your ass and make you watch it. Now that’s bankable!”
3. Jerry Seinfeld
With the release of the first three seasons of “Seinfeld” on DVD and the recent NBC retrospective special on the show, Jerry Seinfeld maintained a lofty No. 3 position on the Bankable Stars poll for the second year running, despite his departure from prime time in 1998. In 2003 Mr. Seinfeld was No. 5, up from No. 7 the year before.
“The strong DVD release only reinforces what we already know-still very bankable with a cult following,” wrote one panelist.
The Sony Pictures Television-distributed show continues to perform strongly in reruns on TBS and on Fox stations, which picked up third-cycle deals last year.
So strongly does the “Seinfeld” sentiment run that when filling the top four spots in the poll, one panelist chose the show’s four main actors: Mr. Seinfeld (“always money in the bank; no one greater”), Michael Richards (“the glue that made the `Seinfeld’ sitcom a hit-should be considered one of the best of physical comedic actors of all time”), Jason Alexander (“played character George to perfection”) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“rates up there with Lucille Ball”).
Last year, one Bankable Stars panelist wrote that the show “deserves to be honored in the Smithsonian with the Wright Brothers’ plane.” In November, the “puffy shirt” Mr. Seinfeld wore in one memorable episode was indeed donated to the Smithsonian Institution, demonstrating the show’s ongoing canonization.
4. Ray Romano
Moving up one spot from last year and three spots from 2003, Ray Romano continues to strengthen his position in the syndication universe even as this season marks his sitcom’s swan song in terms of production.
That end marks a new beginning for Mr. Romano, whose show has become the dominant off-net sitcom.
“In a time with few perennials,” wrote one panelist, “`Everybody Loves Raymond’ ends its network run with a second syndication cycle and ratings confirmed.”
For some panelists, Mr. Romano and his King World-distributed show can be compared to Jerry Seinfeld and his show about nothing. Both were initially ratings-challenged in their network runs, and in syndication both found loyal viewers who didn’t catch many of the early episodes on broadcast the first time around. One panelist suggested Mr. Romano’s strength, like Mr. Seinfeld’s, doesn’t come from his skill as a thespian.
“Not a good actor,” the panelist wrote of Mr. Romano, “but someone the other great actors could play off.”
Other panelists disagreed, with one suggesting Mr. Romano is an “everyman’s comedian,” a good strength to have in syndication.
In a sign of how the show has grown stronger, last February the
Fox station group snagged the second cycle of “Raymond” away from Tribune, with Fox Television Stations Chairman Lachlan Murdoch calling the show “A-list product.”
“A hit in network, cable and now syndication,” wrote a fourth panelist. “Everyone does love `Raymond.”‘
5. Alex Trebek and Ken Jennings
It’s hard to imagine a show going into its third decade being able to reinvigorate itself just by fiddling with a rule change, but King World’s “Jeopardy!” was able to do just that-with the help of a newcomer and his relationship with an industry stalwart.
Alex Trebek, the host of the iconic quiz show “Jeopardy!” since its 1984 revival, has long been considered one of the best in the business.
“Cool, calm, always in control,” one panelist wrote. “[His] demeanor has appeal.”
Mr. Trebek’s performance has been as steady as “Jeopardy!’s” ratings, which have put it among the most-watched two or three strips in syndication.
But with the 2003 decision by producers to remove the show’s five-game winning cap, “Jeopardy!” paved the way for Mr. Jennings’ record-breaking performance. The contestant, an unassuming Salt Lake City computer programmer, began a 74-game winning streak June 2, 2004, and raked in more than $2 million.
Along the way, he helped bring in viewers, strengthening “Jeopardy!’s” already consistently powerful ratings performances. The show ranked second among all strips in the November 2004 sweeps with an 8.2 national household rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. That was up 12 percent over the previous November sweeps.
By the end of his reign, Mr. Jennings had been the subject of ABC’s “Nightline,” A&E’s “Biography” and a Barbara Walters prime-time special. He even joked around with David Letterman in late-night and Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa in daytime.
“A household name now, and he isn’t even a star,” one panelist wrote of Mr. Jennings. “Maybe he should be! Would he like to be on `Survivor’?”
“Survivor” will have to wait, because “Jeopardy!” announced in December it is planning a 15-week championship tournament for early 2005 that would culminate in two finalists out of 150 contestants playing Mr. Jennings for the title of ultimate “Jeopardy!” champion.
6. Cast of `Friends’
Despite ending their network run after 10 seasons, television’s most famous half-dozen since the Brady kids is still going strong in syndication for Warner Bros., earning top ratings and ad dollars to go along with those impossibly big New York apartments.
“A cash cow that’ll be a hit for a long time to come,” wrote one panelist. “Surprisingly, the fact that none of the stars have become major movie stars may actually help the franchise. They’re forever locked in our brains as those characters.”
The eclipse of NBC’s “Friends” spinoff “Joey” by CBS’s “Survivor” in the Thursday 8 p.m. (ET) time period hasn’t done much to change the views of our panelists from those of last year’s crew, though the show’s cast dropped a couple of spots in the rankings. Their performance proves that Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer had a special chemistry that is not likely to be repeated soon.
For some of the former “Friends,” the road to more television also lies behind the camera as producers and directors. Mr. Schwimmer is actively developing his own new network programming, and Ms. Kudrow and Ms. Cox Arquette are each developing series for HBO in which they will executive produce and star. Maybe in a few years “Joey” and other post-“Friends” creations will succeed long enough to make it into syndication, but for now the cast members remain best known for what they did together.
“The world loves them as a group,” one panelist wrote. “We all wish we had friends like that.”
7. Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa
Now in his 17th season in syndication for Buena Vista, Mr. Philbin shows no sign of slowing down. While his latest co-host, Ms. Ripa, continues to play roles in both daytime and prime time, the two still are greater than the sum of their individual parts.
“The dynamic duo of daytime continues to attract younger viewers and big-name guest stars,” one panelist wrote.
Mr. Philbin is still the ABC go-to guy when it comes to filling in for talent that has to bow out. He replaced Dick Clark on New Year’s Eve, stepping in just days before the live event while the legendary “American Bandstand” icon recovered from a recent stroke. He even jumped networks to help out his good friend Donald Trump as the host of NBC’s “Apprentice” finale. No wonder one of the panelists called him “this generation’s Milton Berle.”
Ms. Ripa has augmented her daytime strength with her Friday night ABC sitcom “Hope & Faith.” What makes it all click, according to our panelists, is their ability to work together to create a partnership for daytime that has been unmatched in the marketplace.
“They have stood the test of time,” one panelist wrote. “Many with Regis’ resume would look tired, but you would never feel it from the energetic host who still has great stamina to replace Dick Clark. And Kelly Ripa is quick, handles Rege, and the two of them make the show a daily [viewing] habit. They could do this forever.”
8. Martha Stewart
The prospect of a post-incarceration Martha Stewart teaming with reality master Mark Burnett for an unprecedented joint venture into daytime talk is sure to generate plenty of viewer attention-at least initially.
“Viewers love a good story, and no one spins a better real-life drama than Mark Burnett,” said one panelist. “He has given Martha Stewart her own TV makeover to think about while she sits behind bars. America will undoubtedly tune in to watch how these two tell the rest of her story.”
Little is known about the show. The as-yet-untitled effort will be a one-hour talk show with Ms. Stewart in front of a live audience. Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, NBC Universal and Mark Burnett Productions have announced the show will begin production next fall, syndicated by NBC Universal’s Domestic Television Distribution division. NBC owned-and-operated stations, which cover about 30 percent of the country, will carry it.
Ms. Stewart is serving a five-month prison sentence for lying to investigators about a stock sale. The question remains whether a post-prison Ms. Stewart can consistently attract a larger audience than a pre-prison Ms. Stewart. Even before her legal troubles brought about the demise of “Martha Stewart Living,” the show’s ratings were sinking. “Living” averaged a 1.2 in its final season.
“Maybe a little jail time is well worth the additional celebrity status,” one panelist wrote. “As an ex-con, she’ll give a boost to her otherwise down-trending syndication career.”
At least one panelist was convinced the show would be a success due to the combined creative strength of Ms. Stewart and Mr. Burnett.
“After being behind the eight ball and behind bars, Martha emerges stronger than before,” the panelist predicted. “Never underestimate the `survivors’-Stewart and Burnett.”
9. Ellen DeGeneres
“The Ellen DeGeneres Show” debuted strong, stayed strong and is getting stronger, making the strip an easy pick for Bankable Stars panelists. Ms. DeGeneres’ likable presence and breezy talk show format constantly attract top talent and have powered the show to about a 1.8 rating and growing.
“She danced her way into the living rooms of daytime viewers, who are now watching her in growing numbers,” one panelist wrote.
Along with NBC Universal Television Distribution’s “Starting Over,” “Ellen,” distributed by Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, is one of only two first-run strips that debuted during the 2003-04 season to earn a renewal. The show is expected to keep benefiting from ongoing time-slot upgrades. “Ellen” is also breathing new life into Oxygen, which airs its reruns.
One panelist made a comparison to former afternoon talk host Rosie O’Donnell, whose show also was distributed by Warner Bros. “For years `Rosie’ was the sweetheart of the celebrity interview shows; now Ellen’s got the role,” he wrote.
But that s
ells short how broadly “Ellen’s” appeal has expanded while the show rises above the most saccharine conventions of the format.
“There are stronger franchises, but her popularity continues to grow,” wrote one panelist. “She’s everywhere you look-from awards shows to American Express ads. Good things ahead for `Ellen.”‘
10. Cast of `CSI’
The top-rated prime-time procedural drama amid a sea of procedural dramas, “CSI” now makes its debut on the Bankable Stars list.
When the syndie run of “CSI” premiered in October, its weekend airing scored a 4.3 rating-the best launch of a scripted off-network program since “The X-Files” and “NYPD Blue” and more than double the rating of its closest competitor, “The West Wing” (1.9).
In recent weeks, “CSI’s” performance has only improved, earning a 5.6 rating during November sweeps, according to Nielsen.
The King World series is also credited with singlehandedly propping up Spike TV’s prime-time slate, filling holes nearly every night of the week. The “network for men” even ran a “CSI” marathon during Labor Day weekend that put Spike TV into the top five among basic cable networks.
With Spike reportedly purchasing the spinoff “CSI: NY.” for a record-breaking $2 million per episode and A&E having purchased “CSI: Miami” for $1.25 million per episode, there’s no shortage of interest in broadcast’s most-watched franchise.
“One [show in syndication] now, two more coming,” one panelist wrote. “If it ain’t broke … don’t fix it.”