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Daytime TV Still Draws Top Talent Despite Some High-Profile Failures

Megyn Kelly may have flamed out spectacularly in NBC’s 9 a.m. time period, but that has not torched the daytime TV landscape for high-profile talent. New entries featuring Mel Robbins, Kelly Clarkson, Tamron Hall and RuPaul are all in the works. Even former Trump White House aide Sean Spicer is in the very early stages of developing a daytime talker with syndicator Debmar-Mercury. Top talent is still able to command top dollar in what was, decades ago, referred to as the “housewife” daypart: Clarkson’s deal to host an upcoming talk show from NBC-Universal Domestic TV Distribution will earn her more than $7 million in the first year.

But the road to daytime traveled by the current wave of incoming talent is littered with bodies. Clarkson is effectively taking the slot held by Steve Harvey, whose IMG Original Content-owned show — despite an uptick in ratings this season — will be dropped by some NBC stations in favor of the home-grown Clarkson project and is currently seeking distribution. Harry Connick Jr.’s “Harry” was canceled in February after two seasons. The failure rate in daytime, where years tend to pass in long stretches between the successful launches of major franchises, is high. But for the success cases, the potential payout is huge.

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” says media consultant Brad Adgate. “Everyone thinks they’re going to be the next Oprah or Ellen. More often than not, they aren’t.”

For new programs, penetrating in daytime can be even more challenging than in primetime. Daytime viewers tend to be older and their viewing habits more entrenched. The top five-rated syndicated daytime programs for the week of Oct. 15 have been on the air for an average of 18 years. Of them, only “Hot Bench,” a courtroom show that premiered in 2014 and was created by the reigning queen of the genre, Judy Sheindlin, is less than a decade and a half old.

The lack of young blood in daytime’s top tier indicates the difficulty that new shows have in overcoming established viewing habits. High-profile talent continues to be a preferred method of combating this disconnect. NBC has, for instance, touted Clarkson’s built-in audience of fans who have followed her career since “American Idol,” which made her worth paying $14 million per season to be a coach on “The Voice.” Robbins, Hall and RuPaul likewise have established fan bases that producers, distributors and station managers are hoping will show up for something new.

But recent history reveals a steep hill for talent to climb when attempting to convert personal platforms into daytime viewership. Megyn Kelly serves as Exhibit A in this regard. Long before she used NBC’s air to defend blackface, her awkwardly titled 9 a.m. program “Megyn Kelly Today” established itself as a ratings underperformer, regularly drawing nearly half a million fewer viewers than the hour of “Today” that it replaced — hosted by Hall, Al Roker and Willie Geist. For her work repelling NBC’s viewers, Kelly’s contract paid her $23 million per year. (How much of that contract she walks away with is still being argued over by lawyers representing both sides of the ill-fated deal.)

“Everyone thinks they’re going to be the next Oprah or Ellen. More often than not, they aren’t.”
Brad Adgate, media consultant

With the launch of Kelly’s show, NBC reclaimed advertising inventory from its affiliates — part of an effort in recent years by networks to increase their footprint in daytime, where local stations have long deployed syndicated programming. ABC in September launched “GMA Day” with Michael Strahan and Sara Haines, an extension of the network’s “Good Morning America” franchise.

Kelly’s downfall notwithstanding, the size of her NBC deal serves to illustrate why talent continues to jump into a space where success is rare and risk is high. Despite the knocks against daytime TV — a dwindling, stubborn audience too old to appeal to many advertisers — success within its confines can be among the most lucrative on TV: The two highest-paid on-screen talents in television are Sheindlin, who makes $47 million per year for “Judge Judy,” and Ellen DeGeneres, who earns $50 million per year for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

Though the daytime landscape may be more challenging than elsewhere in TV, it has advantages. Production costs compared with scripted primetime programming are minuscule, meaning that a program can yield a big payoff, even with a star’s enormous paycheck.

“There’s a tremendous amount of upside,” says Adgate. “And if you can get something that can stick — that can really resonate — the sky’s the limit.”

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