It’s hard to imagine daytime TV without Regis Philbin.
“Live With Regis and Kelly” (and before that, “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee”) marks its 20th anniversary in national syndication Friday — but Philbin had already been a familiar TV presence for more than two decades before that.
Dubbed the hardest-working man in television, Philbin has the Guinness World Record for most hours logged in front of a camera to prove it.
But other than his two-year stint on “The Joey Bishop Show” and short-lived programs for NBC and Lifetime, until 1988 Philbin was mostly a local superstar. The gabber garnered top ratings in San Diego, Los Angeles and New York, but a national showcase eluded him.
“I always wanted to do a nationally syndicated show,” Philbin says. “My success locally kept me going in that direction.”
But, he adds, “geographical problems, resistance by stations, my own ineptitude — that’s why it never happened.”
The problem was mostly situational. For most of his early career, Philbin was based out of the West Coast — where you’d have to get up awfully early in order to beam live to the East.
But Philbin wasn’t anxious to leave Los Angeles. In the 1970s, his “A.M. Los Angeles,” co-hosted with Cyndy Garvey, dominated the ratings.
“I thought, gosh, I’d love to do this nationally, but we could never do it from Los Angeles because of the time difference,” Philbin says.
When Peacock honcho Grant Tinker came calling in 1981, a compromise was reached: The daytime NBC show (which replaced the morning show hosted by David Letterman, now a Philbin pal) would be taped in L.A. one day in advance.
Philbin, who was paired with Mary Hart, did well in New York — but the show only lasted a few months.
Suddenly, the host was out of work –and spent the next year off the air, until old boss John Severino came calling. Severino, who’d been general manager at L.A.’s KABC when Philbin hosted “A.M. Los Angeles,” had moved to sister station WABC in New York — and wanted to re-create that success.
Garvey had already moved out East; Philbin was game. “The Morning Show” debuted on WABC in 1983 and quickly hit it big.
“The show had been getting hashmarks when I joined it,” Philbin says. “We turned it into a genuine hit in New York City.”
Garvey eventually left, and by 1985 Gifford (who first went by her maiden name, Johnson) was sitting beside Philbin.
WABC resisted Philbin’s eagerness to go national — however when the host started fielding offers from others, the station agreed (but maintained ownership of the show, and to this day produces it for distributor Buena Vista).
Disney/ABC Domestic TV prexy Janice Marinelli says the distrib didn’t consider Philbin an unknown host at the time, given his successful stints on both coasts.
“Regis was a known talent, and I do recall there were a lot of general managers out there that worked directly with Regis at some point in their career,” says Marinelli, who was a Buena Vista sales rep then.
Philbin says he met some resistance at first over the show’s signature host chat — a feature that was originally inspired by Jack Paar. Would viewers really care to see Philbin and his co-host discuss what they did last night in great detail?
“Guys would come to New York and say to me their reaction, ‘Who the hell cares what he did last night? People in Kansas aren’t going to get it,'” Philbin says. “But they’re the ones who got it.”
“Live” wasn’t an overnight success, and in year two was downgraded to lesser time periods in some markets, and swapped stations in other cities.
“It wasn’t easy,” Philbin says. “Syndication in those days was Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue. But the main thing is, we didn’t change. We got through it. It took us maybe a year and a half, and we had the stations behind us.”
And “Live” had the support of ABC’s powerful station group, which meant the show was never in danger of going away altogether.
Marinelli says “Live” started to take off by the 1990-91 season.
“We started to take hold in each of the markets,” she says. “We also focused all of our attention on it. This was a group effort, from programming to marketing to sales.”
The ultimate sign of success came in the years that followed, as one copycat after another attempted to capture some of “Live’s” success. Many contenders, like Tony Danza or “Living It Up! With Ali and Jack” were even frequent “Live” guests who decided to give it a crack themselves.
But the syndication graveyard is littered with those pretenders to the “Live” throne.
“They find it’s not as easy as it is on our show,” Philbin says. “We have a well-oiled machine. It’s not as easy as it looks.”
Adds Marinelli: “No one’s been able to duplicate it. There’s nothing else like it, it’s unique in the marketplace.”
“Live” tore up the playbook again when Gifford departed in 2001, successfully replacing her with Kelly Ripa. Host transitions rarely occur without a hiccup, but “Live” actually saw its ratings bounce upward as a result.
“We were very particular and selective in who we put in that role,” Marinelli says. “The chemistry between Kelly and Regis is remarkable.”
Meanwhile, between “Live,” his huge run as host of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” and various other emcee duties, it’s truly been the Regis decade. Now, even workaholic Philbin says he’s ready to slow down.
“I think I’ve done everything, believe it or not,” he says. “There are no more hills to climb.”