Despite glut, hot talkshow formula remains elusive

People magazine’s year-end “25 Most Intriguing People of 1993” lists four TV talkshow hosts — Oprah Winfrey, David Letterman, Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh — and a fifth, Susan Powter, who graduates from infomercials to syndicated daytime chat next fall.

A producer or syndicator attempting to research the attributes that make up the perfecttalkshow host might burn out an IBM mainframe trying to compute what these people have in common.

Their only common traits appear to be success in communicating with audiences , quick on-their-feet intelligence and indefatigable drive.

Oprah dominates. While “Leeza” discusses aphrodisiac diets, and “Maury” mediates between wives and husbands divorcing each other over their weight gains , Oprah rises and falls 60 pounds on the air, struggling with her own personal weight problems. How can audiences not embrace her? The often overweight, sometimes svelte black woman from Chicago is the undisputed queen of the medium and one of the most successful personalities of all time.

That magic chemistry with an audience is elusive as smoke. For NBC’s morning “John & Leeza,” handsome, musically talented John Tesh was teamed with his glossy and gorgeous co-anchor Leeza Gibbons from “Entertainment Tonight”– the most profitable, highest spot-generating strip show in syndication. But in the more informal daytime chat format this golden couple failed to generate any chemistry.

“If you think about classic comedy teams — Burns and Allen, Martin and Lewis , Regis and Kathie Lee — there are two distinct, very different personalities,” a major television executive analyzes off the record. “The fun of watching that relationship between the two people is that you look forward to seeing how they interact. John and Leeza were both trying to hit a middle. Their personalities on the air just melded to one. It was not something we would have expected.” How do you research that before the fact?

On the latenight schedule, experience as a successful standup comic works for Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall, but especially for David Letterman.

“Dave was a much traveled standup. That’s a very specific skill in terms of standing up and telling jokes,” says Rob Burnett, the “Late Show” head writer. “But I’ve met few people in my life who have a full vision of how a show should work, and what comedy should be on — and not be on — a show. People underestimate Dave’s abilities as a writer. Dave is an extremely talented writer. And he’s an excellent producer of comedy material himself. He has a well-developed and entertaining vision of what the show should be.”

But Joan Rivers — whose comic invitation to nightclub audiences was “Can we talk?”– has not been able to talk to TV audiences as well.

“The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” launched the Fox Network back in 1986, but after the initial curiosity viewers tuned out. Rivers was replaced by rotating hosts, including Arsenio Hall, whom Paramount Television picked up and launched to profitable demographics in the latenight spot with the same producer he had had at Fox.

Rivers’ daytime show, syndicated by Tribune, was just canceled.

But is it the host or the format? Jenny Jones also came to fame as a comedienne, paying dues for years on the comedy-club circuit, then as the opening act for singers from Dionne Warwick to Engelbert Humperdinck in Las Vegas and the Universal Amphitheatre, before developing her own comedy show “Girls Night Out,” which caught Warner Bros.’ eye.

“We worked with her for a year. Basically she had never done this kind of television before,” notes Scott Carlin, senior VP of sales for WB domestic TV distribution. “We tested her on a little station in Las Vegas, KVVU. You get good crowds there, because you get people from all over the country. It’s convenient to L.A.”

For eight weeks, the producers “let ourselves fine-tune the program. Instead of using 150 stations as our laboratory, we set her up in a real-life situation, where we didn’t have to expose her to the vagaries and scrutinizing eyes of the overnights.”

Then the syndicators went out and sold the show. “We had great stations, great clearances, but we were falling off from year one. After all the research and fine-tuning, We had rating troubles, a show that wasn’t working. We were downgraded across the country. We lost good time periods. We moved off affiliates to independents. It was a deteriorating lineup,” Carlin recalls.

“At that point we had to take a gut check. Did we believe that we had the right piece of talent and just the wrong show? We agreed that was the case, and we changed the show. And we went out and hired two of the senior producers of the ‘Phil Donahue Show’ and brought them in to do a content transplant … and it’s working better and better each new rating book we’re on the air.”

In the November sweeps, Jenny Jones registered a 29% increase over last year.

What kind of host works for the daytime talkshows? What about a charismatic black man who had been a successful motivational speaker? It works for Montel Williams, who just celebrated his 500th show on a rising rating. But Les Brown, who fits the same profile, was canceled the same month by his syndicator KingWorld.

“There was a change a few years ago from when Donahue was the only guy, and he did political issues,” notes Ken Solomon, exec VP/general sales manager for 20th Domestic Television, which distributes “Bertice Berry.””That changed, and so has television and the way people use it. It’s just a different side of information, and people are examining the human condition through these shows. That’s what we’re doing every day.”

What do viewers want? “Long before we developed ‘Vicki!,’ we did a very extensive research project trying to determine the viewing habits of the audience at very specific dayparts,” explainsDerk Zimmerman, president-chief executive officer of Group W Prods. The syndicator’s researchers broke the viewing day into early fringe, access and latenight.

“And essentially what we found, especially in daytime, is a real thirst for information,” recounts Zimmerman. “But information that is relevant to the individual viewer. That makes them feel they haven’t wasted their time. They’ve learned something about what’s going on around them. And they’ve gotten something they can take away from the show, either use in a conversational sense or how to make yourself look better. Not how to get 40 pleats in a drape, but make-overs. Self-improvement. How to keep yourself fit. We figured if we could deliver that in a compelling and entertaining way, we would have a good shot for success.

“But I think you have to start with a compelling personality. I don’t think (daytime talkshows) are format-driven, as much as they are personality-driven. And that personality has to be someone who wants to talk to and can enjoy people. And they have to listen,” sums up Zimmerman.

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