Ratings numbers add up, logic doesn’t

Ask anyone in the talk show business how they measure success and they point to Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue.

If a show takes off as fast as Oprah, it’s a hit. If it lasts as long as Phil , it’s also a hit. Beyond that, everyone seems to be in the dark.

“It’s really different from prime time,” explains Michael King, president of King World, which handles “Oprah” and this fall’s “Les Brown Show.””I may be on in the afternoon in one market and in the morning in another,” King says. “I might have a talk-show lead-in in one market and a magazine in another. It’s very confusing.”

King says that in order to get a fair picture of how a show is doing you must look at what a particular station did in that time period the year before.

Ask King what he’d like to see with his new “Les Brown Show,” and he says: “We would like to come out of the gate with a rating that is renewable. That rating is different in every market.”

King says that if you were in Los Angeles on KCBS in the afternoon and your show got a 2 or a 3 rating, you’d be doing great. “If you’re leading out of ‘Oprah’ in Chicago and you got a 5 or a 6 rating, you’d be dying,” King says. “Because you’ve got a 12 or 15 rating leading into you.”

King says the Brown show will be on in a lot of different time slots all over the country. “But we want to get to the point where our show gets renewed,” he says. “And then we want to see growth.”

Alan Perris, senior VP, first-run programs, Columbia Pictures Television Distribution, sees potential for all three hour-long shows being launched in the fall, his own, “Ricki,””The Les Brown Show” and 20th Century Fox TV’s “Bertice Berry.”

“All three are coming out on a barter-cash basis,” Perris says. “which means that you don’t get all your money based on the ratings, you get some money in your pocket based on license fees to the stations.”

Perris says that helps keep a show on the air because at least some of it is being supported by cash as you’re trying to grow an audience.

“Of course, if it’s too low of a rating, you can’t continue,” says Perris, “but if you see it has some places where it’s doing quite well, it’ll give you a feeling that maybe you should keep going.”

He says he has some actual numbers in mind for “Ricki,” but he won’t have a clear idea until the fall. “We know what would be deemed a failure,” he says. “We know that if we came out of the box like Oprah did in 1986, we’d be doing fine. We knew that was a success from day one.”

Most shows, Perris points out, start slowly and grow. Some grow a little and never grow again. Others grow a lot.

“Sally Jesse (Raphael), for instance, started out very low a few years ago and has grown into a good audience,” Perris says. “Others started out low and never changed.”

“The Montel Williams Show” was given TV’s version of a platform release. Viacom rolled it out slowly over a year, starting in six major markets. Executive producer Herman Rush says that it allowed the show to make mistakes and learn from them.

“Unlike some of the newer ones that just get thrown on the air, this one had experienced all of the rough roads and all of the problems,” he says. “It was able to go national having worked all those things out.”

Diane Sass, VP, marketing for MultiMedia, which distributes “Donahue,””Sally Jesse Ra-phael,””Jerry Springer” and”Rush Limbaugh,” says the talk-show universe has remained stable for the last couple of seasons.

The top three shows, “Oprah,””Donahue” and “Sally Jesse,” have not changed in the positions for the past two years. “Donahue” had been No. 1 until “Oprah” came along. And about two years ago, “Sally Jesse” overtook “Geraldo.”

The second tier, she says, comprises “Geraldo” and “Maury Povich,” which is in its second season. Sass says they are neck-and-neck. Also ranked here is “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee.”

“The Montel Williams Show” is close on the heels of the second tier, but Sass says it’s still got a way to go.

“Then we come to the brand-new guys who are in the third tier,” says Sass. “They’re all hovering around the 2.5 rating mark. That’s ‘Vicki’ and ‘Jerry Springer.’ ‘Jenny Jones’ is lower, down there with ‘Joan Rivers.’ ”

Can you kill the golden goose?

Can there be too many talk shows? “I don’t think so,” Rush says. “I don’t think it’s any different from asking if there can be too many sitcoms or too many movies. The poor ones will sink and disappear. The good ones will survive.”

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