Most Bankable Stars: Which Personalities Are Sure Bets? TVWeek‘s Survey

Jan 16, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The queen of talk is still far and away the driving force of daytime, nighttime and beyond, though other names on this year’s list are playing musical chairs.

For the fifth year in a row host Oprah Winfrey is No. 1 on the annual TelevisionWeek list of the Most Bankable Stars in Syndication. The list, as chosen by our jury of television insiders, has its share of position changes, with last year’s fourth-most-bankable star, “Everybody Loves Raymond’s” Ray Romano, rising to No. 2 and edging out the 2005 runner-up, Phil McGraw, who now sits at No. 3.

This year’s list has only one rookie, which makes it more stable than last year’s, when three newcomers made it to the elite list. Every year, as the National Association of Television Program Executives conference approaches, TVWeek asks jurors to assess which syndicated talent is best able to attract viewers and affect the media business.

Asked to name the top personalities who either ran in syndication in the 2005 calendar year or are expected to debut in 2006, the jury stuck with veterans over newcomers nine times out of 10, trading out only lifestyle show hosts. Last year’s No. 8, Martha Stewart, who was then in the media spotlight over her impending release from federal prison and the launch of both her NBC Universal syndicated series and a prime-time reality show, was transitioned out for an almost generational shift to King World’s Rachael Ray, this year’s No. 10, who is expanding out from cable to front a new how-to strip for the fall.

Other fall 2006 hopefuls, including “Will & Grace” star Megan Mullally, author and comedian Greg Behrendt, Judge Cristina Perez and Judge Maria Lopez, garnered votes, but not enough to overcome the syndicated tried and true.

The other notable 2004-05 freshmen-talk strip host Tyra Banks, the courtroom genre’s Judge Alex Ferrer and weekly variety showman Tom Joyner-couldn’t crack the top 10 this year.

While on the first-run side Ms. Ray was able to make strides by slipping into the annual list, the jury included the same off-network talent that made the winner’s circle last year, opening up no spots for newcomers like “Two and a Half Men’s” Charlie Sheen, a popular choice in this year’s rankings but not popular enough to enter the top 10.

The closest any other off-network strip personality came to making the list was the creator of a series that may not even be on the schedule in 2006 and a character who doesn’t really exist. Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Twentieth Television’s “Family Guy,” and his animated evil genius toddler Stewie Griffin nearly surpassed Ms. Ray for the No. 10 spot, despite the fact that Twentieth has not yet announced it is going forward with a syndicated launch of the show for next fall.

The other notable off-network talent to almost make the list was the cast of “That ’70s Show,” another established syndication presence.

One juror placed so much importance on off-network talent she made her top three choices the casts of veterans “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “Raymond,” noting they deserve the distinction because comedies are “the backbone of syndication and in danger of extinction.”

While the dawn of the 2005-06 season may introduce new bankable stars to syndication, the established names are still the most formidable TV personalities, led by the lady from Chicago, Ms. Winfrey. With an eye to the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, one juror said of Ms. Winfrey that she is “the gold, silver and bronze standard.”

1. Oprah Winfrey

For the fifth year in a row Ms. Winfrey tops the Most Bankable Stars list, thanks to her continued rapport with audiences, top-tier ratings and ability to touch on subjects her viewers most want to explore. One juror wrote that with a contract to remain on the air through 2011, Ms. Winfrey is likely to be the bankable star to beat for the next five seasons, and noted she is “not to be dethroned for the foreseeable future.”

Ms. Winfrey continues to develop her media empire, and that includes producing the Broadway musical “The Color Purple” and made-for-TV movies and continuing to back emerging syndicated talent such as Rachael Ray, who gets her own Oprah-approved talk strip this fall.

This past year Ms. Winfrey proved her ability to stay current. Her coverage of the aftermath of the South Asian tsunami and her ability to bring the enormity of the tragedy down to a personal perspective resonated with her viewers. Her interview last January with frequent guest Nate Berkus, who usually talks only about interior decorating and has been targeted as a possible talk show host, profiled his survival of the tragedy while he was vacationing in Sri Lanka. Ms. Winfrey was able to communicate to the audience Mr. Berkus’ pain at not knowing what had happened to his partner, photographer Fernando Bengoechea, who was lost in the disaster.

The ability to directly cover tragedy on a grand scale distinguished Ms. Winfrey from most of the other stars of syndication. For her 20th-season opener, she left her Chicago studio and went to the Gulf Coast region to report on the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Not all of Ms. Winfrey’s notable headline moments in 2005 were so sobering. In May Tom Cruise appeared on her show and infamously jumped up and down on Ms. Winfrey’s couch to express his love for new girlfriend Katie Holmes. The incident showed Ms. Winfrey’s importance to A-list talent like Mr. Cruise and how events on her show can be true media moments.

“Really, she should have a list of her own,” wrote one panelist who voted Ms. Winfrey No. 1. “She is the dean of the university for talk shows.”

2. Ray Romano

Ray Romano, the man at the center of the traditional and immediately classic King World sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” continues his steady rise on the Most Bankable Stars list, up two spots from last year, up three spots from 2004 and well ahead of the No. 8 spot he held in 2003.

In a world where broadcast networks seem to be continually on the search for a convention-breaking comedy that will redefine the genre, “Raymond” and Mr. Romano’s very relatable style are a throwback to the era when all a good sitcom needed was a couch, terrific scripts and a talented cast. This year Mr. Romano surpasses the comedian who once overshadowed him when they were both airing in broadcast-Jerry Seinfeld, whose “Seinfeld” is now regularly eclipsed in the syndicated ratings by “Raymond.”

The comparisons between the two series still resonate, with one juror calling Mr. Romano “the ‘Everyman’ Seinfeld.” But another juror, who voted Mr. Romano No. 1 on his list, noted that the daily foibles of the show’s Barone clan and Mr. Romano’s reactions to them “still proves the popularity of his family-friendly comedy in syndication and cable.”

“Raymond,” which ended its nine-year broadcast run on CBS last May with 32 million viewers tuning in to the series finale, was like the little engine that could. The show’s growing popularity over the years helped send it into syndication, where new viewers became fans of “Raymond” and, in turn, of Mr. Romano.

Network broadcasters seem to have finally ended the comedy curse and introduced successful new half-hours in the current season, and Mr. Romano benefits from being involved with one of the relatively new off-network sitcom properties in syndication. But it would be a mistake to assume that Mr. Romano is bankable only because there is a lack of new product.

As one juror predicted, Mr. Romano will “be around for a very long time to come.”

3. Phil McGraw

Despite being down one spot from last year, Phil McGraw’s eponymous advice show “Dr. Phil” is still the perennial silver medalist when it comes to daytime talk, second only to big sister “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Currently in its fourth season, the “Oprah” spinoff came into its own soon after its launch, with Mr. McGraw drawing in audiences with his no-nonsense talk and ability to
reach out to viewers wrestling with life’s most difficult problems.

Mr. McGraw’s work will continue for some time to come, considering the agreement signed in August by distributor King World Productions, which distributes “Dr. Phil.” The deal extends the life of the show an additional five years from its previous production order, which would have taken “Dr. Phil” to 2009. Now Mr. McGraw is set to coach couples and confront family crises through the 2013-14 season. As part of the deal, “Dr. Phil” was renewed on a number of CBS-owned stations through 2011 and transferred this past September from NBC Universal stations in Chicago and Los Angeles to the CBS fold.

While some critics have chastised Mr. McGraw for boiling down complex treatments and oversimplifying family or couples therapy, his loyal viewers couldn’t care less what some in the psychological establishment say.

“You can’t argue with audience affinity,” one juror wrote.

“Dr. Phil,” which is produced by Paramount Domestic Television, has grown beyond being solely a counterpoint to the softer, more co-dependent talk that dominates daytime to a franchise that other producers hope to emulate. Most notable among the studios looking to capitalize the need for on-air counseling is Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, which is grooming a television therapist of its own, Keith Ablow, for 2006-07.

“He continues to establish the benchmark for therapy-relationship programming,” one juror wrote. “Phil has now spawned the possibility of Dr. Keith Ablow on the fall horizon.”

4. Ellen DeGeneres

Rising five spots from No. 9 last year, Ellen DeGeneres’ improved ratings reflect the TV industry’s approval of her relaxed, conversational style.

While still out of the top-tier league in terms of syndication ratings, Ms. DeGeneres can boast the best year-to-year gains of any syndicated strip this season through Dec. 26, growing 15 percent in households to a 2.3, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Looking back to her debut three seasons ago, it seems silly to recall the reservations the marketplace had about Ms. DeGeneres, questioning whether her quirky humor would translate to daytime, since it had failed so recently in prime time, and wondering whether an openly lesbian stand-up comedian would relate to the red-state soccer moms who form the backbone of the daytime audience. Today, those concerns have been appeased, one juror wrote.

“Ellen DeGeneres has become a fixture on the daytime landscape and put to rest any concerns about her being accepted in Middle America,” the juror wrote. “She is now the funny member of the family that visits every day to share a slice of life.”

Daytime Emmy voters comprise another group that accepts Ms. DeGeneres. In May voters awarded her a statuette for outstanding talk show host-her first such award-and gave her show its second consecutive outstanding talk show Emmy.

Part of Ms. DeGeneres’ success is the fact that she is being herself, something that endears her to her audience. “She does her one thing the best,” another juror said.

If anything, the daytime talk format is the most natural setting for Ms. DeGeneres’ unique and varied talents, a third juror wrote, noting she has “finally found the format fit for her funny-and fun-style.”

5. Jerry Seinfeld

After two years in the third spot on Most Bankable Stars, Jerry Seinfeld slid down to No. 5. “Seinfeld” is no longer the top off-network comedy in syndication, and Mr. Seinfeld’s drop coincides with Mr. Romano’s ascension on the list, a pattern that mimics the weekly ratings race between the comedians’ respective shows in syndication.

But things are hardly bad for Mr. Seinfeld in terms of his place in the off-network universe. Out of production since 1998, “Seinfeld” is still one of the hottest comedy properties in television, a fact that one juror particularly admired when he described the legendary “show about nothing” as “defying the test of time.”

This past November Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (whose sister company, Sony Pictures Television, distributes the show in syndication) released seasons five and six of “Seinfeld” in two DVD volumes. Just months before Sony had released the fourth season on DVD, marking the event by having Mr. Seinfeld throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the final game of the New York Yankees/New York Mets Subway Series in May.

The fifth- and sixth-season DVD package was much more than just the discs themselves. The boxed set included a miniature version of Mr. Seinfeld’s “puffy shirt,” a crucial prop in one of the show’s best-loved episodes and a garment that is now immortalized in the Smithsonian Institution.

Mr. Seinfeld is still a huge stand-up draw, booking major venues and bringing in sellout crowds wherever he goes. But in terms of television, he is still linked to the simple episode titles that came to define the show-ask any fan of the series and he or she will be able to tell you the synopses of “The Junior Mint,” “The Contest,” “The Big Salad,” “The Nonfat Yogurt” or “The Hamptons.”

Using one of the show’s signature lines, another juror captured how Mr. Seinfeld’s observational, almost mundane take on life has resonated so well in syndication: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

6. Cast of ‘CSI’

In its second year on the Bankable Stars list, “CSI” has moved up four spots, reflecting both its top-rated spot among hour weeklies and anticipation for the syndication rollout of the next series in the franchise, “CSI: Miami.”

The flagship “CSI,” which continues to regularly top the weekly charts as the No. 1 show among network prime-time series, is currently down from its debut season in syndication but still the leading off-network drama for 2004-05. Even with increased competition from rookies such as Twentieth’s “24” and Buena Vista’s “Alias,” King World’s “CSI” is still the highest-rated weekly hour season to date in syndication. Through the week ended Dec. 26, “CSI” scored a season-to-date national household rating of 4.9, according to Nielsen Media Research.

For the vast majority of stations, which run the series on Saturdays and Sundays, “CSI” has been a welcome addition to their lineups. One juror called the show “a weekend workhorse.”

Part of “CSI’s” allure is clearly its cast, which is arguably more flashy than the by-the-book casting of that other procedural franchise that has made a name for itself in its syndication and cable runs.

“This franchise may have more juice than its version-loving cousin, ‘Law & Order,'” another juror said.

“CSI” leads Marg Helgenberger and William Petersen give a little juice to the series, and the same can be said of David Caruso and Emily Procter, two of the stars of “CSI: Miami,” which premieres in syndication this fall.

“From the original Las Vegas-based series to Miami and now finally New York, these casts and their ability to be different yet the same in procedural forensic drama have dominated CBS [and] cable,” a third juror said.

“CSI: Miami” has also received the official seal of approval from Katz Television Group, which is recommending the show to its client stations.

If the sheer number of hours covered by a franchise is any indication of its bankability, “CSI” and its spinoffs will continue to rise on the list once “CSI: NY,” the newest of the series, comes to syndication in 2008.

7. Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa

If consistency itself is a virtue, Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa, the hosts of Buena Vista’s “Live With Regis and Kelly,” get extra credit for their spot on the Most Bankable list this year: they remain in the same position they held last year.

The pair’s unscripted, conversational start of every show is something of television legend, a without-a-net format that even the most accomplished syndicated talent might shy away from.

Mr. Philbin, who has been with the talk strip for 18 seasons, and Ms
. Ripa, who joined “Live” in 2001, have so finely tuned their act that they are the definitive syndicated series in the mornings.

Ratings bear this out, with “Live” No. 3 among talk strips (behind “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Dr. Phil”) with a 3.4 national household rating season to date through Dec. 26, according to Nielsen Media Research. That performance is even more impressive considering “Live’s” talk competition, which tends to benefit from later time periods with more viewers, and in theory should perform better against Mr. Philbin and Ms. Ripa’s midmorning chats.

“As a team, they are so comfortable that their ‘over coffee’ banter has the ring of an old couple,” one juror said.

The use of humor and the pair’s willingness to make fun of themselves is something viewers and advertisers have come to enjoy about the morning strip. This past Halloween-a traditional signature show for “Live”-Mr. Philbin and Ms. Ripa came out in various costumes over the course of their hour, once as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, and then even more improbably as the Olsen twins.

The wear and tear of the daily talk grind have done little to slow down either host, a juror noted.

“Each has made their mark, with Kelly becoming the queen of magazine covers while hosting and co-starring on [ABC prime-time sitcom] ‘Hope & Faith,'” the juror said. “Regis has his Christmas album, New Year’s Eve on Fox, [upcoming ABC prime-time reality series] ‘This Is Your Life’ on ABC, the most frequent guest and target on ‘Late Show With David Letterman.'”

“Does anyone even remember Kathie Lee?” another juror asked.

8. Cast of ‘Friends’

Down two spots from last year’s list, the “Friends” alchemy of Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox Arquette, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer is still a magic draw for our jurors two years after the show wrapped production on NBC.

One could say this wasn’t exactly the best year for some of the “Friends” alums, considering Mr. LeBlanc’s spinoff “Joey” has continued to disappoint in the hit show’s old time slot (and was yanked from the schedule this month), while Ms. Kudrow’s HBO behind-the-scenes series “The Comeback” met with mixed reviews and a reduced episode order. But the former friend facing the most turmoil in 2005, at least in her private life, was Ms. Aniston. With the very public breakup of her marriage to Brad Pitt, and Mr. Pitt’s almost immediate coupling with his feature film co-star Angelina Jolie, Ms. Aniston found herself in the middle of this generation’s Debbie Reynolds-Eddie Fisher-Elizabeth Taylor-type media circus.

If anything, the Warner Bros.-distributed show has benefited from all the drama, one juror suggested, noting that Ms. Aniston’s tale of betrayal was a top story for the year.

“Every time viewers check out magazines at the checkout line, she reminds them of ‘Friends,'” the juror said, pointing out that Ms. Aniston is now even more of a glossy cover girl favorite as she develops her film career.

Even The New York Times indirectly gave the syndicated show free publicity in 2005, when in a year-in-review article on notable buzzwords it pointed out that the phrases “Team Aniston” and “Team Jolie” were popping up on T-shirts across the country, allowing wearers to publicly state their allegiance.

In syndication at least, the cast of “Friends” is still as successful, fresh and funny to viewers as ever, especially in a marketplace where a new sitcom has yet to come on-air that can successfully compete with the Central Perk crowd five days a week. As another juror put it, the “Friends” ensemble is “the cast that still can.”

9. Alex Trebek

Thanks to Ken Jennings, Alex Trebek had a great 2004, landing at No. 5 on last year’s Most Bankable list. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that his ranking slipped slightly this year. Mr. Jennings is no longer on the show, but Mr. Trebek’s smooth demeanor and his ability to pronounce nearly any word imaginable show he is just as bankable without a star contestant’s bringing “Jeopardy!” newfound notoriety.

Mr. Trebek, who has been the host of the Sony-distributed game show “Jeopardy!” for 22 seasons, shared his ranking last year with Mr. Jennings, who in the summer of 2004 began a 72-game winning streak that ultimately brought the Utah computer programmer more than $2 million.

While down in the ratings from the previous season’s resurgence, for the 2005-06 season to date through Dec. 26 “Jeopardy!” was the No. 3 show in syndication with a 6.4 national household rating, according to Nielsen Media Research.

If anything, Mr. Trebek’s stewardship of the show is such a television institution that many industry insiders may take his success as a given. As one juror noted, Mr. Trebek “may be the longest-running syndication personality out there,” a major feat considering the dozens of talk show and game show hosts who have come and gone since “Jeopardy!” made its debut with Mr. Trebek in 1984.

Not everyone takes the show for granted. At the Daytime Emmys last May “Jeopardy!” won for outstanding game show for the 10th time, breaking the tie it held with another syndication stalwart, “$100,000 Pyramid.” And last November Sony had such faith in Mr. Trebek it released a DVD set of some of “Jeopardy’s!” greatest moments, including Mr. Trebek’s first show. The release made “Jeopardy!” one of the first syndicated game shows ever to get a DVD.

In a nod to the classic “Jeopardy!” format and its host’s signature delivery, another panelist chose to describe Mr. Trebek in a form even causal viewers of the show will warmly recognize: “The [answer] is, ‘What is syndication consistency?'”

10. Rachael Ray

Breaking into the top 10 before her upcoming show even airs, Rachael Ray, the chef, world traveler and author who has made a name for herself on Food Network over the past few years, is the only new personality to appear on the 2006 list. A couple of factors make Ms. Ray, who grew up working in restaurants run by members of her family and was discovered giving cooking demonstrations at an upstate New York grocery store, such a high-profile talent.

First off is her association with both King World Productions, which has not launched a new daytime strip in three seasons, and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, a formidable company that generates interest and buzz because of its famous owner. Second is Ms. Ray’s track record, which shows she can master not only the world of cable television but also book writing, product endorsement and her latest venture, magazine publishing.

Two jurors pointed to Ms. Ray’s association with Ms. Winfrey in particular as a sign she will be a force to reckon with once she makes it into syndication; both called Ms. Ray Ms. Winfrey’s “protégée.”

The goal of an Oprah Winfrey protégé is to emulate the successful Phil McGraw and not the less successful Gayle King, who had a King World-distributed talk show in the ’90s. While both had the backing of their famous sponsor, only Mr. McGraw succeeded, because he was able to effectively communicate to an audience in a format that best highlighted his unique talents.

Daytime syndication has flatly rejected many good-natured hosts who have succeeded in other media venues, and at face value Ms. Ray has to be careful this fall as she transfers the skills she used to succeed with cable shows such as “30 Minute Meals” and “Rachael Ray’s Tasty Travels.”

Ms. Ray has what it takes to overcome the obstacles inherent in doing a syndicated strip because of her experience in television and the strengths of her syndication partners, a juror wrote.

“Several shows on the Food Network help to establish her potential,” the juror wrote, “but the endorsement and production involvement of Oprah Winfrey are the biggest steps up for any offering.”