By Allison J. Waldman
Special to TelevisionWeek
While it seems that the game show genre has been all but disappearing from the daytime TV lineup, the same cannot be said for talk shows. Television programming is littered with chat fests, all of which have tried to catch the brass ring that Oprah Winfrey has owned for the past two decades.
The regal Ms. Winfrey remains daytime television’s talk show gold standard, and if she had not withdrawn herself-and her show-from Daytime Emmy consideration, she would be a sure bet for this year’s award. Simply put, she had a huge year in 2006. But in 1998 Ms. Winfrey decided she had won enough. It was time to give others a chance to taste the champagne of an Emmy win, so she stepped away from the annual competition.
That fact clears the way for the present flock of nominees in the category of outstanding talk show host, including Ellen DeGeneres of the syndicated talker “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” last year’s winner in the category and a winner the past two years for outstanding talk show. This year, Ms. DeGeneres’ competition in the host category will be Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa, “Live With Regis and Kelly” (syndicated); Barbara Walters, Star Jones Reynolds, Meredith Vieira, Joy Behar and Elisabeth Hasselbeck, “The View” (ABC); and Lisa Rinna and Ty Treadway, “Soap Talk” (SoapNet).
The nominees are nearly the same in the category of outstanding talk show, with just one variation. Instead of Ms. Rinna and Mr. Treadway’s cable talker, voters chose to include “Dr. Phil,” the syndicated show hosted by Phil McGraw, a Winfrey prot%E9;g%E9;. As for the high-profile Martha Stewart, who returned to daytime this past year with “Martha,” the host/convicted felon veered away from the outstanding talk show category, receiving nominations instead for outstanding service show and outstanding service show host.
Since joining daytime Ms. DeGeneres has distinguished herself not only by winning the top prize at the Emmys two years in a row but by improving her ratings as well. Her show has netted a 15 percent rise to a 2.3 rating season to date, according to Nielsen Media Research. In many ways, Ms. DeGeneres has inherited the audience that Rosie O’Donnell abandoned when she quit her daytime talk show.
“Just as Rosie O’Donnell was the darling of the talk show circuit in years past, Ellen seems to be in the same position. She appeals to the same viewer, the woman who’s not looking to watch an issues-oriented program while she’s doing the laundry. She wants a few laughs, and ‘Ellen’ is a happy place to hang out,” said Mary Ann Cooper, a daytime television expert who writes the syndicated column “Speaking of Soaps.”
One of the secrets of Ms. DeGeneres’ success may be that she makes it look easy. The hours of writing and preparation, especially for a talk show that boasts as much comedy as hers does, are daunting. In an interview in 2005 Ms. DeGeneres admitted, “I didn’t know how hard daytime was; I didn’t realize how competitive it was. … I didn’t realize the amount of content that you have to come up with every single day. I mean, we’ve done, like, 140 shows. It’s 140 monologues, 140 days walking out and having something to talk about, 140 times that I’ve had to stay completely present with somebody and not drift off no matter how tired I am. It’s really an intense amount of energy to expend every day. I’m finding ways of keeping that energy level up, because it’s really hard.”
Since 1999 alone, TV has seen Jane Pauley, John McEnroe, Queen Latifah and Howie Mandel try but fail to claim a piece of daytime for themselves. Many think they know what it takes to succeed in the talk show format, but the key seems to be that it’s not the format, but rather the star and the setting.
Barry Wallach, president of NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution, which failed to get “The Jane Pauley Show” to last more than a year, said it’s never been easy to get a new talk show off the ground. In a recent interview, Mr. Wallach explained, “[If] you have the right host and executive producer, it’s a great business. If you have the wrong talent, format and executive producer, it’s not a good thing. … The statistics are one out of 10-it’s no different than prime time or cable. It’s a business of finding that one out of 10 that works. The odds aren’t any better.”
Ms. DeGeneres’ success is even more impressive, considering the issues she brought to her syndicated show. There were many TV industry experts who doubted her ability to connect with viewers when she launched in 2003. Her continued success proves that audiences have welcomed the openly gay comedian into their homes as readily as they have straight talkers.
Straight talk of another kind is what “Dr. Phil” has offered, and thus far, the show has found a comfortable niche in the market. Since launching in September 2002 “Dr. Phil” has garnered the highest ratings of any new syndicated show since “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 1986.
But with Mr. McGraw’s increasing commercialization in the form of books, prime-time specials, “Got Milk” ads and leasing his services to Match.com, some TV experts are wondering whether he is beginning to wear out his welcome. And while “Dr. Phil” did grab an Emmy nomination for outstanding show, Dr. Phil himself was snubbed in the host category. Is it possible he’s grown tiresome to voters? TV Guide columnist Michael Logan thinks it’s likely: “Dr. Phil is starting to lose credibility. He’s become a real fame whore and his advice is increasingly suspect. It’s only a matter of time before the public realizes this emperor has no clothes.”
Asked who might actually be able to best Ms. DeGeneres at the Emmys this year, Mr. Logan cited a dark horse candidate: “I wouldn’t count out ‘Soap Talk.’ Though the show is profoundly dopey-and Lisa Rinna is like fingernails on a chalkboard-it always gets the kiss-ass vote from the daytime community. Virtually every soap star has done the show.”
Ms. Cooper contends that Ms. DeGeneres has the show to beat, but she also points out, “Regis is an industry favorite. ‘Live’ may not be a strong contender in the outstanding show category, but Regis and Kelly Ripa could submit just the right reel to topple Ellen. Their openings are what make the show, and the Emmy voters could wind up seeing something that will win them the host Emmy.”
And what about “The View”? The show did tie for outstanding talk show at the 2003 Daytime Emmys (with the now-defunct “The Wayne Brady Show”), but the ladies have never captured the host Emmy. “It would be a surprise to see those five win,” Ms. Cooper said. “Even after all this time, they’ve never clicked as a team.”
While Ms. DeGeneres is likely to continue her winning ways at the Daytime Emmys, the real winner in daytime is still Ms. Winfrey. This year in particular she reasserted her prowess. Her talker is still the highest-rated syndicated program and her influence and news making have never been more omnipresent. “Oprah remains champ, not only in the ratings but in her uncanny talent for making headlines, from her Hermes scarf scandal to the Tom Cruise couch incident to that huggy-poo reunion with [David] Letterman. No one can top her, or stop her,” Mr. Logan said.
Ms. Winfrey has also been keenly responsive and involved in issues of the day, such as her coverage of the 2004 South Asian tsunami and how it affected those who were living in or visiting the area. One of her regular guests, interior decorator Nate Berkus, was on vacation in Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit. Making contact withMr. Berkus and seeing the devastation through his eyes became the focal point of Ms. Winfrey’s coverage.
Months later, when New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were devastated by Hurricane Katrina, Ms. Winfrey again took action. She left the comfort of her Harpo Studios in Chicago to go to New Orleans, where she not only reported what she saw but also played a role in humanitarian aid efforts and enlisted other celebri
ties as part of her Angel Network. The coincidental timing of the hurricane and “The Oprah Winfrey Show’s” 20th-season premiere added up to ratings gold for the talk show hostess.
But does Ms. Winfrey still have the Midas touch when it comes to talk shows other than her own? She plucked Mr. McGraw out of relative obscurity to make him a talk show star, and in 2006 her company, Harpo Productions, will be syndicating another new talk show, this one starring Food Network favorite Rachael Ray. Ms. Ray, whose show “30 Minute Meals” has garnered the plucky young cook Daytime Emmy nods in the outstanding service program and outstanding service program host categories this year, is perceived as a star on the rise. And like Ms. Winfrey, Ms. Ray has her own magazine-Every Day With Rachael Ray-and has penned several books. In addition, Ms. Ray has endorsed a line of kitchen products.
“Rachael has all the attributes needed for daytime success,” Ms. Cooper said. “You’ll see, viewers will respond to her no-nonsense, you-can-do-it-too attitude. Also, having Oprah behind her can only help.” “Rachael Ray” has been sold in the country’s top 25 markets and in all but four of the top 50 TV markets.
But with Ms. Ray there’s some concern that she may be taking on too much. On the Food Network she is already starring on “30 Minute Meals,” “$40 a Day,” “Rachael Ray’s Tasty Travels” and “Inside Dish With Rachael Ray.” Will a syndicated talk show spread Ms. Ray too thin to be effective?
“If you ask me, no,” Ms. Cooper said. “I think she’s likely to be Oprah’s heir apparent, since Winfrey has already announced that she’s going to stop her show in 2011. Oprah could be grooming Rachael to be the next Oprah. You can never tell.”
The other high-profile talk show launch of 2006 will star Megan Mullally of “Will & Grace” fame. She was the first of that show’s four stars to win an Emmy for the NBC sitcom and has the benefit of being familiar to viewers. Reruns of “Will & Grace” run both in syndication and on Lifetime. But will those factors spell success in daytime talk? Mr. Wallach believes so. NBC Universal Television Distribution is producing Ms. Mullally’s Los Angeles-based, hour-long show.
In addition to handling guest-star interviews, Ms. Mullally will sing and perform, and Mr. Wallach thinks this format will be just the right backdrop for her many talents. If it’s not, a year from now we could be hearing about the next great Oprah wannabe, wondering when, if ever, anyone will claim the crown from Chicago’s daytime diva par excellence.