Talk is cheap, but lucrative

Talk continues to be the driving force in syndication for the fall season. With their relatively inexpensive formats and across-the-board appeal, talk shows are still thriving. As a consequence, everybody is looking for the next Oprah Winfrey or Ricki Lake.

Among the new daytime talkers for this fall are former “Beverly Hills, 90210” star Gabrielle Carteris (Twentieth Television); former pop star Carnie Wilson (Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution); former Cosby kid Tempestt Bledsoe (Columbia TriStar TV Distribution); former married couple Alana Stewart and George Hamilton (Rysher); former ESPN personality Mark Walberg (New World); and former Partridge family kid Danny Bonaduce (Buena Vista Television).

That’s a whole lot of formers. The trend, it would seem safe to say, is to take personalities who have already gained some fame elsewhere and stick them in a daytime talk show. It worked for Ricki Lake, who had appeared in a string of John Waters films and the ABC series “China Beach.” Of course, that strategy didn’t work for Suzanne Sommers or Marilu Henner.

The new talkers are also for the most part very young. Just as the networks are skewing younger with their programming, so are the syndicators with their talkers.

But how much talk is too much? Last year, the only show to have any success was Twentieth Television’s “Gordon Elliott.” Casualties of last season included Group W’s “Marilu” and “Jones and Jury,” MCA’s “Suzanne Sommers” and Multimedia’s “Susan Powter.”

Station reps, who advise TV stations on what to buy, agree that there is no one standout this season. Twentieth’s “Gabrielle” is given high marks because of Carteris’ experience as a host of several Rysher Entertainment talk specials and her recognition from “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Reps are also high on Buena Vista’s “Danny” and Warner Bros.’ “Carnie.”

“Shows have to offer something different to stand out and let audiences know they are there,” says Jack Fentress, VP and director of programming, Petry Television. “Danny, because of who he is, is a readymade product that stands out. He will get a pretty good sampling.”

“Carnie,” Fentress added, will also stand out. “From what we hear, she is ‘Ricki’ with attitude.”

Mark Itkin, senior VP and West Coast head of syndication and cable packaging, William Morris Agency, which put together “Danny,” says that show won’t be like the current crop of shock talk. “It will be an extension of Bonaduce. There will be occasional celebrities and Danny will have a lot of fun,” says Itkin. It will not, he stresses, be “lowest common denominator talk.”

Rysher’s “George & Alana” is looking to capitalize on the success of Buena Vista’s “Regis & Kathie Lee.” Since it is the only new show not necessarily betting the farm on young demos and controversial topics, it could end up finding an audience.

Bill Carroll, VP, director of programming, Katz Television, says TV stations might be more patient with “George & Alana” than they are with afternoon talkshows.

“These shows take a while to find an audience and get comfortable, and the majority of clearances are committed to this kind of show,” says Carroll. “The early numbers for ‘ Regis & Kathie Lee’ were not great, but stations waited, and by Year Two it built its audience. (“George and Alana”) will get a different kind of window than the other talkshows.”

The biggest gamble in syndication this fall is being undertaken by Group W, which is teaming up with CBS to launch “Day & Date,” an hourlong news magazine that is costing about $45 million with live hourly feeds in the afternoon and early evening.

The show wants to be a combination of ABC’s “Nightline,” Paramount’s “Entertainment Tonight” and CNN. Ideally, Group W is looking for clearances in the 4 p.m. time slot as a lead-in to local news. But that is proving to be a hard sell even for the CBS-owned stations. And the show’s desire for hot time periods could mean that stations won’t wait too long to pull the trigger if “Day & Date” isn’t working. So far, the show is cleared in about 60% of the country.

“That is a show that will have to succeed early,” says Carroll. “They have to be praying for tragedies or news of great consequence for an audience.”

Latenight was a disaster for syndicators last year. Shows that got canned include Paramount’s “Jon Stewart Show,” MCA’s “Last Call” and Columbia/TriStar’s “The Newz.”

This year, only Buena Vista’s “Stephanie Miller” and Turner Program Service’s “Lauren Hutton and…” are going after the latenight audience. Miller, a comedian who hosted a popular talk radio show in Los Angeles, is the first women to host her own latenight talkshow since Whoopi Goldberg. Miller is quick with a joke, and Buena Vista is hoping that her hourlong strip can cut into some of the female audience watching CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” and NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

“Lauren Hutton and…” is actually more like Goldberg’s show. The half-hour strip will feature only one guest and a trendy set.

” ‘Stephanie’ will have a tough go,” says Petry’s Fentress. “She is up against Leno, Letterman and Snyder as well as the sitcoms that are having fair success in those time periods.” But “Stephanie” got a break when Fox pushed back its plans to go into latenight. In many markets the show will have an 11 p.m. start, which will give it the jump on the competition.

Also, now that there is a female alternative in latenight may be enough to get the show some initial sampling. “There is a need to have a woman in latenight; it is good counterprogramming,” says William Morris’ Itkin.

On the action front, the theme this year seems to be spinoff. Two of the more anticipated shows are based on current hits. All American is rolling out “Baywatch Nights” and MCA has “Xena: The Warrior Princess,” which is a follow-up to the surprise hit, “Journeys of Hercules.”

“Spinoffs are what they are,” says Fentress. “Few work as well as the original.”

“It is impossible to know what will work. Nobody knew that “Hercules” would be such a big hit,” Carroll adds.

Other action hours and half-hours for the fall include Buena Vista TV’s “Land’s End, ” starring Fred Dryer; MGM’s “Outer Limits”; Samuel Goldwyn’s “Flipper”; New Line’s “Nancy Drew” and “Hardy Boys”; and in January, Turner Program Service’s “Lazarus Man,” starring Robert Uric.

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