Talkshows tough it out for shrinking slice of ratings pie

Making the rounds of syndie distribs at the NATPE confab in Miami last week reminded me of a question that’s been bugging me for some time: How do broadcasters make money in daytime these days when the ratings are so low?

“The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “Dr. Phil,” the top of the talkshow pack, rarely crack a 2 rating in the target demo of women 25-54.

Katie Couric’s “Katie” has emerged as the top frosh yakker of the season. She’s been hovering around 1.0 in the key demo for the season to date — which translates to about 605,000 viewers in that demo. The show is averaging 2.5 million viewers a week for the season to date, and its median age of 60.2 means that at least half of her audience is 60 and up.

At the risk of sounding like Chicken Littleton, I expected execs to wince at my questions about the post-”Oprah Winfrey Show” daytime landscape and confess that yes, the sky is falling between 9 a.m.-3 p.m. In fact, I got a tutorial on the laws of supply and demand, as well as an environmental lesson.

The daytime arena is no different than primetime. Broadcast ratings are dwindling, but they still typically draw the largest slice of an audience heavily fragmented by the multitude of lifestyle and niche offerings elsewhere on the channel menu and online. So broadcast CPMs keep rising precisely because it’s becoming harder and harder for advertisers to find the big crowds they covet.

“Scarcity” is the magic word. And in a world rocked by multiplatform disruptions, daytime TV remains a haven for mostly live viewing. Even the most popular shows typically get only a tiny lift from DVR viewing over a three- or seven-day time frame.

The chase for precious rating points puts an even bigger premium on brand integration in daytime shows. And that’s where environmental factors come into play.

“Rachael Ray,” for example, is pulling a modest 0.8 demo rating this season so far, but the show rakes in big bucks through the product placement and integration deals it can offer a range of advertisers. The show is uniquely situated to be integration friendly thanks to its cooking and lifestyle focus (manna from heaven for packaged food marketers) and also because Ray never veers into the tawdry territory — there are no paternity tests in her kitchen — that is a turnoff for plenty of blurb buyers.

Talkshow vets say the dealmaking on integrations and even entire branded segments have become a more significant part of the profitability picture for talkshows, particularly new shows. It’s a far cry from the days when producing even a middling firstrun yakker was a license to print money.

Even with fractional demo ratings, distribs can eke out a small profit so long as the demo rating doesn’t fall much lower than a 0.6. That explains why “Anderson Live” is going away after this season, why Ricki Lake threw in the towel on Monday and why it’s not looking good for fellow newbie Jeff Probst.

Rather than the inevitable ratings declines, the bigger concern for station execs is the staying power of new talent. Some are encouraged by the perf of another frosh strip, “The Steve Harvey Show,” which is right on Couric’s heels with a 0.9 demo rating for the season to date. And the recent growth trajectory of “The Wendy Williams Show,” now in its fourth year, offers more evidence of the value of being patient with a slow-building personality who needed time to find her footing.

Couric’s show has the insurance of having been sold for two-year deals at the outset. Station managers in a few top markets said they were hoping Couric would have a little more muscle in the demographic given that her prime afternoon timeslots typically lead into their all-important local newscasts. (Couric’s season-to-date numbers will get a boost today when the national ratings for the show’s highest-rated episode — the Jan. 24 interview with embattled Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o — are released.)

But in the same breath, execs praised the “environment” of the show as being a draw for upscale advertisers. To reinforce its commitment to Katie, distrib Disney-ABC Domestic TV put out a release on the final day of the NATPE confab assuring that Couric was already renewed for a second season, which was read by many as a warning to rival distribs not to get any ideas about going after her timeslots with new shows any time soon.

No matter how classy the host or her environment, it’s still a jungle out there in syndication.

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