6 week trial proves fruitful for talk show host

New York-based syndicated radio personality and DJ Wendy Williams was a big fish in a relatively small pond for nearly two decades. She got shout-outs in pop songs by Mariah Carey, and considers it her job to “be all up in everyone’s business,” but it wasn’t until recently that folks outside of Gotham got a taste of her frank, down-home Jersey girl style.

So how do you successfully sell yet another colorful personality in the jaded world of syndicated daytime talk? A little at a time, say Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein, co-prexies of Lionsgate’s Debmar-Mercury, distributor of “The Wendy Williams Show.”

Instead of a big national debut with the standard 52-week contract, Williams premiered with a six-week test in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Detroit in the summer of ’08. Her one-hour daily entertainment talker won viewers over in big numbers in key demos, especially in New York and Dallas.

Big enough, in fact, to make the syndication marketplace stand up and take notice.

Debmar-Mercury has now given a firm production commitment to the show, which will debut nationally July 13 and be carried by stations in all of the top 20 markets, including outlets belonging to major groups like CBS, Cox, Fox, NBC and Tribune. It will be taped daily in New York. Talkshow veteran Rob Dauber will be executive producer.

It’s been estimated that by the time of her national debut, Williams will have been cleared in 98% of the markets. She’ll have what few other new talkers can boast — a proven product.

“This whole business of making five-minute tapes based on appearances from a latenight talkshow is insane,” Marcus says. “We’re trying to take out the guesswork and be smarter about the business — more entrepreneurial. We felt and do feel strongly that six weeks is enough for you to see if you have a show creatively. Even if the audience hasn’t found it — and in this case they did — you know when you have something special.

“Taking two years to find out if you have a show or not — that’s just spending people’s money that you shouldn’t be spending,” he adds.

Debmar-Mercury crafted its first test deal a few years ago when Tyler Perry planned to do a sitcom called “House of Payne.” Perry wanted creative control, while Debmar-Mercury wanted to reduce some of the risk in the traditional syndie model.

At Perry’s expense, stations were given 10 episodes for a free trial run. His show got picked up by Turner Broadcasting exclusively for 100 episodes, broke cable sitcom ratings records and just this fall became a hot broadcast syndication commodity.

That kind of success, along with that of the Williams show trial, has garnered attention and will surely spawn imitators, but Bernstein isn’t so sure others are prepared to jump aboard the bandwagon of the new business model. “We created it, and we can’t stop others from doing it,” he says, “but there’s one thing that will stop them from doing it, and that’s their ego. We don’t have any ego. We’re willing to say, ‘We don’t know.’ We thought Wendy was a great idea, but we’re willing to admit it’s worth a test.”

Both Marcus and Bernstein say they plan to use the same rollout model again. “If it’s a brand-new show like ‘Wendy Williams,’ I think Ira and I will say, we’re pretty much in the test business.”

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