Partners say timing right for controversial host's return

Rosie O’Donnell had heard the pitch before.

Virtually every network and every studio had sent feelers her way in recent years. Would she be interested in a latenight talkshow? A news-oriented show on MSNBC?

No and no. Instead, she did a nine-month stint as a co-anchor of “The View” in 2006-07, which ended with a few fireworks. Then she took to the idea of dusting off the variety genre in 2008 — but to disastrous results on NBC.

Retreating once again from TV, O’Donnell signed on to host a show for Sirius XM radio.

Then came Oprah Winfrey’s retirement announcement last November. The thought of a Winfrey-free daytime marketplace changed everything.

Former Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution topper Dick Robertson was taken aback by Winfrey’s decision to finally pull the trigger — something she had teased for years but had never committed to, until now.

The former exec immediately called his old colleague, ex-HBO Domestic Distribution prexy Scott Carlin.

“Did you hear the news?” Robertson asked Carlin. “What do you think about Rosie?”

Robertson and Carlin, who left Warner Bros. in 1999, had launched the original “Rosie O’Donnell Show” syndie yakker in 1996 to tremendous success. They called O’Donnell’s reps at WME — Nancy Josephson and Rick Rosen — which led to a sitdown with O’Donnell.

“We explained to her how we saw the marketplace, and that this was a once-in-25-years jump ball,” Carlin said. “And asked, is there a better person than someone like you — who has the experience, whose show earned five Emmys, who’s been involved in social media and continues to connect with fans and viewers — to do what Oprah’s done?”

The timing couldn’t have been better: Robertson’s production deal with Warner Bros. had just expired. And Carlin, who left HBO last year, had just launched an independent company.

“People had been chasing her, but we were the first guys to lay it out post-Oprah announcement,” Carlin said. “And we were the two guys who put her show on originally. She was very clear: As great as the (Warner Bros.) experience was last time, she wanted to do it this way this time.”

“This way” meant a new company, yet to be named, from O’Donnell, Robertson and Carlin. The shingle so far remains hyper-focused on launching the O’Donnell show, but will eventually look to acquire off-net titles and distribute other firstrun shows.

News of their new endeavor leaked prematurely — which means Robertson and Carlin haven’t yet honed their pitch. They also haven’t yet contacted stations. And, Carlin admitted, they have no illusions of immediately taking those Winfrey time slots.

“We’re not babes in the woods, we know the ABC stations (which carry “Oprah” in the top markets) have other intentions,” Carlin said. “This is coming out of left field for everybody. We’re not expecting people to stop and change their plans.”

As a result, Carlin said he expects the Gotham-based show to perhaps be cleared on smaller stations — or in lesser timeslots — when it launches in fall 2011.

“I’m really not overly concerned about where this show starts,” he said. “Whatever station we’re on, we’ll have enough real stations, real time periods. The light will be there. The proof of performance will be there. And we’ll end up in Oprah-like timeslots before you know it.”

Carlin also admitted that O’Donnell will need to do a little damage control to make nice with station execs, some of whom still have a bad taste in their mouth for how “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” got more political toward the end of its run. Her controversial stint on “The View” didn’t win her any fans at stations either.

“While there might be some bad feelings and lingering bad memories out there, people will put their emotions aside and look at practical realities and what this means from a business standpoint,” he said.

Carlin called Winfrey’s impending exit “the single most disruptive, critical moment in daytime TV in the past 25 years.”

“Those 4, 5, 6 ratings points have to go somewhere,” he said. “Something’s going to come in and fill that vacuum.”

For now, that “something” includes Warner Bros.’ “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” which recently extended its deal with NBC stations, and local news — which is what many ABC stations are expected to replace “Oprah” with.

In giving stations the Rosie pitch, Carlin will argue that those shows will indeed pick up some of the “Oprah” aud — but will argue that the already weak station community will further erode viewers to cable unless another major player enters the fray.

As for the content of the show itself, Carlin dismissed reports that O’Donnell planned to use a new syndie strip as an opportunity to promote her pet causes. The show, he said, will instead emulate much of what Winfrey currently does — single-topic episodes that feature newsmakers or celebs on some days, and controversial topics on others.

“If Rosie wanted to just have a platform for her causes, she would go get a show on cable news,” Carlin said. “She’s a comedian, not a political pundit.”

O’Donnell sent out a statement late Tuesday night outlining how she has “evolved and grown and learned a lot about myself over the last eight years.”

“The business has changed significantly since I left and obviously, come fall 2011, daytime television will change in a very dramatic way. … I would like this show to make a difference in viewers’ lives, to be real, uplifting, authentic and focus on life, love and laughter.”

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