Talk goop

For all its hype and headlines, the Great Talkshow Wars of ’93 was actually a broad invasion on all fronts with relatively light casualties. The surging battle for time slots and ratings is not over who lives or dies but who captures the most territory.

True, the Fox Network’s “Chevy Chase” awkwardly self-destructed in the latenight slot, while Dave Letterman coolly moved from NBC late late to CBS late to forge ahead of Jay Leno in the time slot that everyone believed Johnny Carson had forever willed to NBC.

In daytime, KingWorld’s “Les Brown” was canceled. NBC cancelled “John & Leeza” with John Tesh and Leeza Gibbons but turned around and bought “Leeza,” which an executive at the producing company Paramount insists is a totally different show, for the same time slots. And Warner Bros.’ “Jane Whitney”– whose syndication was unprofitably split between latenight and daytime clearances — has been sold to NBC as a network morning show.

In the Los Angeles market at the new year there are 30 different talkshows competing — depending on whom and what you include in the chat format category — and that figure does not include UHF or cable.

The skirmishing between TV talkshows starts in the dark predawn hour of 5 a.m. with “Bertice Berry” and ends at the less than bewitching hour of 2:05 a.m. when “Later With Bob Costas” signs off. The heaviest competition, if not ratings , occurs at 11 a.m. when “Leeza,””Jerry Springer,””The Mo Show” and “Jenny Jones” battle head to head. But the market’s appetite is such that in L.A. the syndicated “Bertice,””Sally Jessy Raphael,””Jenny Jones” and “Montel Williams” each run twice a day.

“What you’re basically seeing with the talkshows is the spawning of the new daytime landscape, which is replacing and pushing out the traditional daytime network fare, i.e. gameshows,” explains Scott Carlin, senior VP of sales for Warner Bros. domestic TV distribution.

Adds Carlin: “They’ve knocked out a couple of soap operas. (‘Bold and the Beautiful,’ ‘Generations,’ ‘Santa Barbara’). One of the reasons NBC was intrigued by the opportunity to pick up ‘Jane Whitney’ was this is back to business. Until someone comes up with something unique and different, that’s what we’re going to see a lot more of.”

When Montel Williams recently celebrated his 500th show, he remarked, “A lot have come and gone, but we’re still here.”

“Five hundred shows!” commented Phil Donahue, who started it all 26 years ago. “This man is not out of the womb yet.”

All-talk channel

In October, Multimedia Entertainment — which currently syndicates Donahue, Raphael, Springer and Rush Limbaugh — will launch an all-talk channel with “all original programming, not using any of our current talkshows,” says Multimedia executive VP Richard Coveny. “Twenty-four hours of talk, and 20 hours of that will be live. Two or three of those hosts will be no names. The rest will be people who we feel will make it big, and we’ll work with them just like when we put ‘Donahue’ on the air.”

“We’ve now visited every major MSO (multisystem operator) three times. Everybody is supportive of what we’re doing. The cables are anxious to get their channel capacity up. The average is still around 35. And you’ve got DBS, which will be on full bore by the fall, and they’ll have 150 channels. As this build-out takes place over the next three years, we will almost geometrically start growing.”

E! Entertainment channel already came to the conclusion that there were no longer enough hours in the day for the most dedicated couch potatos to watch all the conversation and programmed “Talk Soup,” spicy spoonfuls of some 22 shows it tastes daily. This lead to a surreal exchange on Group W’s “Vicki!” in which Melissa Gilbert’s godfather accused her of kleptomania, then admitted he had said it just to get quoted on “Talk Soup,” which, of course, he was.

As for regular broadcasting, Coveny notes, “There is still a great appetite for talk. But we’ve reach the point where’s there’s not room for more, if they are not strong enough to make it.”

Chevy wasn’t. Why? A major Fox executive, speaking anonymously, holds a post-mortem: “It was really very simple in the end. He didn’t come out of the box big. He wasn’t natural. He was more nervous than any of us expected, then he expected. And that came through, although I don’t know if that’s the reason people didn’t watch.”

Hot environment

Chevy “didn’t jell, adds the exec. “It just didn’t work. It was in a particularly hot environment, under a microscope, against a new David Letterman. Letterman was coming from a time period where you could develop things long-term , and Chevy started from where you have to come out of the box big. Everyone had a real high expectation level, and there wasn’t a chance to grow. As a business, we have to be willing to fail as often as we’re willing to succeed. It may have been a failure, but it was a good one, because it was a good idea to try.”

During the late-night wars, Arsenio Hall had suffered downgrades on the CBS and Fox affils and showed a slight slip in ratings from a year ago but held strong in the 18-49 women demographic that has been the show’s profit margin.

“Everybody was predicting that Arsenio’ show would be the big loser. The truth of the matter is that, while we can’t say we’re significantly up, we’re not significantly down. In the interim Chevy Chase has gone by the wayside. Conan O’Brien has settled in. And our core demographic is still very strong,” surveys Kerry McCluggage, chairman of Paramount Television Group.

“We’re well positioned for a comeback.” adds McCluggage. “Fox is going to give its affiliates back the 11 o’clock or 10 o’clock time spot — depending on which time zone — effective Jan. 31. We’ve already been contacted by a number of Fox stations that have been carrying Arsenio later to carry the Chevy Chase, and they want to upgrade the show to the earlier time, which will give us a chance for improved ratings. In the latenight scene, generally speaking, it’s a truism as you move earlier in the night, there’s a larger audience available. People go to sleep by the hundreds of thousands every quarter hour.”

Even a competing syndicator notes, “He’s (Arsenio) made a lot of money over the years, and they are just going to let it run.”

In daytime, “Les Brown joins a long list of performers with big names that didn’t work in show business,” explains Roger King, KingWorld’s chairman of the board. “He was a motivational speaker. Hisstrong suit is something that won’t work as a talkshow host. And we saw that. He’s still a tremendous talent, but not as a talkshow host.”

WB’s “Jane Whitney” was a barter show with 60% of its lineup at late-night and 40% during the day. “It was neither fish nor foul. At the end of the day we couldn’t get enough advertisers, irrespective of the ratings, to support the show financially,” says Scott Carlin, WB domestic TV senior VP for sales. In its morning slot in New York City against “Regis & Kathie Lee” Whitney did well, and NBC made a license fee deal to transfer the show to the network to replace their morning games “Caesars Challenge” and “Concentration.”

Multimedia’s Coveny points out, “With all the talkshows on the air in daytime , there’s never been one that’s been done by a network. They’ve all been developed by syndicators, independent producers-distributors. It may be the nature of the beast because the networks are so big. They may not be able to come up with a consensus to pick up a personality and go with it. They’ve tried over the years, but they haven’t been able to do it. Isn’t that amazing that there are all these shows on, and not one belongs to a network. And never has.”

Ready to go

Who’s now in the wings prepping to go on stage? In September Multimedia launches Susan Powter, the shaven-headed infomercial pitchwoman whose “Stop the Insanity!” claims the sales record of pitching $ 50 million of weight-loss products this year. Powter hosts a half-hour daytime barter show with emphasis on self-improvement.

Radio talkshow host Dennis Praeger — who Coveny touts as “a different twist of conservative” from Multimedia’s Limbaugh — will come out with 30-minute late-night interview that the syndicator hopes stations will run back-to-back with the great liberal basher, who now boasts four million viewers.

Fox and CBS are partners in the “Gordon Elliott Show,” starring the Australian featured on New York’s WNYW’s morning show, whose specialty is impromptu door-knock interviews.

KingWorld is developing a talkshow for “Inside Edition” anchor and correspondent Rolanda Watts, which will incorporate its own magazine pieces.

Suzanne Somers plans to counter-program this fall with an upbeat interview and entertainment hour in which she also performs with a live band. MCA-TV is producing and syndicating “The Suzanne Somers Show.”

Group W’s talk-court show “Jones & Jury” will make on-the-air confrontations legally binding, as ex-NBC legal correspondent Star Jones hears disputes between combatants who have agreed to abide by her and the audience’s verdict.

Audience grazing

All the competition from the new kids on the scheduling block has taken bites out of Oprah, Donahue, Sally and Geraldo’s rating. “There’s no question that there’s sampling going on,” admits Multimedia’s Coveny. “You’ve got them running head to head. We have Donahue with two or three against him in 15 markets.”

However, Donahue and Sally are now syndicated all over the world, with Donahue in 38 countries. About half in English and the others dubbed. “No one does a talkshow like we do here,” boasts Coveny.

In the ’60s, media oracle Marshall McLuhan predicted that television would transform the world into a global village. talkshows have now become the global village’s back fence.

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