Duplicating broadcasters' success easier said than done
Cable goes toe-to-toe with broadcast television when it comes to scripted programs such as “The Closer” on TNT and “White Collar” on USA. However, cable has yet to make significant inroads with daytime talkshows.
While they may be easier to produce in terms of overall cost, the key ingredients necessary to make a successful yakfest program aren’t always easy to find. Topping the list is getting the right host and also having a budget big enough to make problems go away.
Talkshow producer Mary Pelloni, who co-executive produced Fox’s “The Fran Drescher Show” recent tryout, says it’s an understatement to say “The Oprah Winfrey Show” has spoiled audiences by making its polished product appear easy to produce.
“Everyone has big dreams of finding the next ‘Oprah,’?” says Pelloni. “But nobody realizes how brilliant that show is. It has a gigantic producing staff. They spent $70,000 on a private jet to get Danny Glover to the studio the day they were shooting a reunion for ‘The Color Purple.’ Imagine the whole show budget?”
Executives may feel that any likable TV star can headline a talk show, but Pelloni says hosts have to know what they’re doing.
“Oprah did at least eight years of local TV before coming to Chicago and approximately five or six years of local TV in Chicago (before going national),” Pelloni says.
Big budgets certainly make producing a successful talk show easier, but OWN chief creative officer Lisa Erspamer, who produced “Oprah” for 15 years, says audiences ultimately tune in to see the host.
“When you’re doing a talkshow, you have to be comfortable in your own skin,” says Erspamer. “You have to be open, have a point of view and be curious about everything.”
OWN currently airs “The Gayle King Show” and, later this year, it will debut a talkshow by Rosie O’Donnell.
“Gayle’s a walking People magazine,” says Erspamer. “She’s equally obsessed about human interest, celebrities and news. She’ll ask anyone anything and has an incredible curiosity. We feel Rosie’s a real, authentic voice and a ‘lean in’ talent. You want to hear everything she has to say.”
Allowing talent to be who they are is key when developing talkshows, says Pelloni, who executive produced Roseanne Barr’s short-lived talker in 1998.
“Audiences knew Roseanne (from her sitcom) as a poor woman, and that’s how she made that show work. Then, she showed up on her talk show with liposuction, a face lift and wearing $10,000 outfits. The audience felt disconnected.”
Pelloni cites the makeover that spiritual author Iyanla Vanzant received both physically and in terms of topics that she did on “Iyanla” in 2001 as the reason it was also short-lived.
“Everyone has skill sets,” Pelloni says. “Iyanla’s strengths are not cooking segments.”
Talkshows have to find not only audiences at home, but ones for the studio, too. While “Oprah” and “The View” have no problem filling seats with enthusiastic devotees (there’s a two-year wait for tickets to attend a “View” taping), newer programs find getting people to show up for tapings more problematic.
“It’s very, very hard to fill a talkshow audience in Los Angeles because there are so many other things going on here,” Pelloni says. “Audience members will sit there and clap for you (when the ‘applause’ sign flashes), but they’re not going to give you the energy and interest on a topic that a real fan would. Sometimes you have to pay the audience to be there. That’s a huge part of the budget.”
Pelloni’s advice to cable networks hoping to grab some of Oprah’s audience when it becomes available in September is to spend money.
“Don’t think you can do it cheaply,” Pelloni says. “You have to build a personality who people would trust and want to watch. Someone people will respect.”
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