Daytime talk becoming brand-new game

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Time was when the key to success in the daytime TV talk arena was finding a host with an engaging personality, good diction, and the ability to think fast on his or her feet. Nowadays, the most successful daytime stars are not merely TV personalities, but brands unto themselves.

As the television landscape becomes more fragmented and overall audience levels for daytime broadcast TV dwindle, distributors of first-run talkers are increasingly looking for new outlets to brand their talent and pique the interest of prospective viewers. As always, The Oprah Winfrey Show remains the gold standard that others strive to meet.

These days, the word Oprah doesn't just indicate a talk show in its 20th year of national syndication, but an extremely lucrative brand that revolves around the top-rated The Oprah Winfrey Show and its Oxygen counterpart, Oprah After the Show. Then there is the "Oprah Winfrey Presents"-branded TV movies on ABC; a book club; two magazines; an XM Satellite Radio channel launching in September; and a product line featuring everything from hats, shirts, and robes to candles and journals.

Dr. Phil McGraw, who got his start in TV thanks to his many appearances on Winfrey's show, and Martha Stewart are among the daytime personalities who have similarly broad reach in everything from book stores to discount retailers to cyberspace.

The tricky challenge facing the new crop of would-be Oprahs and Dr. Phils launching in the fall is to make enough of an impact with their TV shows to draw the interest of potential partners in other arenas, whether it be a cable outlet to take repeats of the daytime series, or licensing and merchandising partners.

Sony Pictures Television has a new talk show on deck to be hosted by Greg Behrendt, coauthor of the best-selling book He's Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys. Melanie Chilek, senior vp development and syndicated programming at SPT, said her company chose Behrendt based on a number of factors, including personality and talent.

"He has a very unique and authentic voice, attitude, and perspective on life," she says. "He's so broad and accessible--that's why we have so much confidence in him. If you meet someone who is articulate and smart with a very clear voice and point of view that's right for daytime, you're inclined to want to develop something with them."

Chilek adds that name recognition for a host of a new show can have its pros and cons.

"When somebody is known as a particular brand, that sets up a level of expectation for viewers, and if they don't meet that level of expectation, it can hurt you," she says. On the other hand, "it definitely helps if people love and know the brand of a person. It gets viewers to come sample a show."

The talent and skill of the host is the make-or-break factor that is more important than initial name recognition, says Jim Paratore, executive vice president Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution and president of Telepictures Prods. Paratore, whose company distributes the upcoming The Keith Ablow Show, points out that if a host doesn't have the right stuff to front a talk show, they won't succeed no matter how famous they are.

"The biggest stars in daytime are people you didn't know--Oprah, Dr. Phil," he says. "They succeeded because they could do it. We think Dr. Keith Ablow is one of those people. He's not a name brand coming into the marketplace, but he can do it. He's competent and in touch with the kind of information people are looking for."

Ablow isn't a household name, though some daytime and cable viewers might recognize him from appearances on shows including Oprah and The Tyra Banks Show or on such networks as CNN and Court TV. But Warner Bros. actually is counting on the recognizability of fellow daytime advice-giver Dr. Phil to let the daytime audience know who Ablow is, employing a marketing campaign that urges viewers to watch Ablow's show to get a "second opinion."

One way that Warner Bros. and other distributors have sought to bolster the profile and bottom-line financials on new shows is to sign rerun deals with cable outlets--and, more recently, satellite radio providers--for repeat airings of their shows. Warners' talkers The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Tyra Banks get second runs on Oxygen, and the audio of both airs on an XM Satellite Radio channel dubbed Take Five. NBC Universal's Martha is another daytime show that has a cable home as well, with second runs airing on TLC.

Oprah Winfrey distributor King World Prods. is coming to the marketplace this fall with a new entry, Rachael Ray, which does boast a well-known personality. Ray enters the talk show fray with a firmly established brand: She has hosted no fewer than four Food Network shows, written a number of cookbooks, including Express Lane Meals, due out April 18, and even launched a magazine in October. Like McGraw did a few years ago, Ray also is coming into the daytime marketplace with a leg up on the competition, thanks to her many visits to Winfrey's show.

Such a coordinated branding strategy is essential to longevity in television, King World CEO Roger King says.

"Branded products are what stay around for years," he says. "Our idea is to build branded products and hits. And we know how to develop product and build shows."

But that doesn't mean King World went searching for a recognizable name in choosing Ray, says Terry Wood, president of creative affairs and development at King World and Paramount Domestic Television.

"It isn't just about having Rachael's name on the show," she says. "It's knowing I'm working with someone who brings content to the table every single day and wasn't hosting just to be standing in front of the camera."

NBC Universal also is rolling the dice in the fall on a personality known to viewers from a different venue, the Emmy-winning sitcom Will & Grace. Actress Megan Mullally aims to make the Ellen DeGeneres-type transition by showing off her many talents on a self-titled talk-variety show.

"Nobody is a talk show host before they are a talk show host--they come from something else in life they are successful at," says Barry Wallach, president of NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution. "Having people recognize and love you is a good thing, but that doesn't necessarily get you more than initial sampling."

Indeed, regardless of how many ancillary markets a host or a show may seek to tap into, the engine that drives a host-branding strategy is the television show, executives agree. And in daytime these days, with so many alternatives available to tempt viewers, breaking through with a new show is no easy feat.

"The statistics [for success in daytime] are one out of 10--it's no different than prime time or cable," Wallach says. "It's a business of finding that one out of 10 that works."

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