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From the kitchen to the couch

Oprah's seal of approval means Ray enters talkshow fray with high expectations

If Rachael Ray can do to the talkshow biz what’s she’s done with a bundt cake, she’ll be in good shape.

The Food Network personality and bestselling author is taking her perkiness to NATPE, as both Harpo Prods. and King World are working together to make Ray the next big thing in daytime.

Set for a fall launch, “Rachael Ray” has already cleared 85% of the country and will be on some of the most-watched affiliates in the country, including WABC in New York and WPVI in Philadelphia, both of which will air the show at 10 a.m. after “Live With Regis and Kelly.”

“The lineup works in her favor,” says Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for media rep firm Katz TV. “A great station lineup doesn’t guarantee success, but it helps you be successful. Those two ABC O&Os are the best launch platform, and that’s where Oprah and Rosie O’Donnell started. There aren’t any guarantees, but I’d rather be there than anywhere else.”

Ray has been a staple at Food Network, where her shows “30-Minute Meals” and “$40 a Day” have become popular with both culinary experts and channel surfers. As an author, her “Rachael Ray 365: No Repeats — A Year of Deliciously Different Dinners” is on the New York Times bestseller list.

How the show will be formatted hasn’t been decided yet — though it will most likely combine celebrity chats and cooking self-help segments — but Ray is adamant about wanting to connect with the core aud she’s developed at Food, those more interested in learning to make family life easier than wanting to know the latest in the Paris Hilton/Nicole Richie squabble.

“I have a clear picture of what I want to do,” Ray says. “No crying, no big stuff. I’m the queen of the little stuff. I want it to be really accessible, with a can-do, party feel rather than a talkshow feel. I want to hear real-life solutions to small problems.”

Says Terry Wood, president of creative affairs at King World and Paramount, and responsible for helping to create a template for the show: “What I love about Rachael is that she knows what she can and can’t do, so we’re spending a lot of time figuring out how the hour is going to feel. She’s not someone you want to segment or wedge into a formula.”

Clearly, Ray’s association with Harpo will help ingratiate her with Winfrey’s wildly loyal audience. As she did with Dr. Phil, Winfrey will have Ray as a guest on her show six to eight times before Ray sprouts her own wings. If Ray wasn’t well-known enough from her Food Net appearances, Winfrey’s plugs undoubtedly will put her over the top.

Already, the two have spoken about what it takes to maintain success on a daily talkshow.

“In her first private word of advice, Oprah said to me, ‘Just be you.’ I’ve never patterned myself after anybody in my lifetime,” Ray says. “I’m a huge fan of hers and Ellen (DeGeneres). What’s cool about both of them is they’re true to themselves, and their personality comes through.”

As it stands now, King World says there will be 180 episodes of “Rachael Ray” with a launch date of Sept. 18. And Wood realizes it’s imperative to have the skein looking polished right from the start.

“We can’t blow it on the first day,” she says. “There’s no patience. You can’t toy and play with these shows. There are too many choices out there.”

With a full plate that now includes a new series as well as her Food Network obligations, Ray will have to learn to rest during her downtime. Conveniently, everything will be shot out of New York.

Food Network CEO Brooke Johnson, who helped give Ray her national spotlight, says Ray’s energy will compensate for the decreased sleep she’s bound to endure.

“We’ve been working closely with King World to make sure she can do it all. We’ve been talking about this new show for a year. It’s a natural evolution for her. She can paint with a broader palette than just food.”

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