Kelly Clarkson built her career by blending country, pop, R&B and rock influences into a soulful sound all her own. As it turns out, the singer-songwriter has a touch of Dinah Shore in her as well.
Clarkson has delivered an impressive performance so far with her move into the daytime talk-show arena as host of “The Kelly Clarkson Show.” Since its September debut, the hourlong talk-variety show, distributed by NBCUniversal, has proven to be a ratings contender, ranking No. 4 among all syndicated daytime talkers, ahead of such veterans as “Maury,” “Rachael Ray” and “The Wendy Williams Show.”
The “American Idol” alum’s strong start is adding more fuel to the renewed fire in the first-run syndication business. After a few fallow years, distributors are slowly but surely taking bigger swings with boldface names in an effort to seed a new generation of personalities. Drew Barrymore and Nick Cannon are among the notables set to segue into the daytime yak pack in the fall of 2020.
“We’re happy ‘Kelly Clarkson’ is working. It shows that if you go big in a talk show with the right talent, it can stick,” says Ira Bernstein, co-president of Lionsgate’s Debmar-Mercury syndication unit, which is the distributor behind “Nick Cannon.” “If we can keep daytime TV relevant and attractive to viewers with more new shows, everybody wins.”
Local broadcast TV stations once had a license to print money in daytime. Competition from cable was minimal. The major studios targeted the daypart with first-run syndication, or programs sold to station owners on a market-by-market basis rather than to a national network. First-run syndication in the heyday of the 1980s and ’90s delivered massive hits à la “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy” and “Judge Judy.”
But the track record for first-run programming in the past decade has been dismal. “Kelly Clarkson” is the first newcomer to register a real pulse since Steve Harvey launched his talk show in 2012. NBCUniversal has already renewed the series for a second season.
Tonally speaking, Clarkson’s show is a throwback to the breezy celebrity-driven chat fests of the 1960s and ’70s. Think Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Shore bantering with guests on the couch, interacting with the studio audience, doing a song or sketch or two and offering up feel-good human-interest segments.
Tracie Wilson, executive VP of creative affairs for NBCUniversal Domestic Television Distribution, says Clarkson has the right stuff for daytime. NBCU had high hopes after watching her work last year as a coach on NBC’s “The Voice.” But daytime requires a deeper level of connection with viewers in order to make the show a daily habit.
“Kelly is the exact same person off camera that she is on camera,” Wilson says. “She’s putting her heart and soul into the show, and that’s coming through to the viewer.”
The Texas-born singer-songwriter comes by her frequent use of “y’all” honestly. It’s no surprise to NBCU that the show is scoring in heartland markets like Nashville, Phoenix and Portland, Ore. “Kelly Clarkson” has averaged about 1.8 million viewers for the season to date (through Nov. 8). That puts her behind only “Dr. Phil” (3.2 million viewers), “Live With Kelly and Ryan” (2.7 million) and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” (2.5 million) among daytime talkers.
“Kelly Clarkson” generated immediate buzz for its opening segment, dubbed “Kellyoke,” in which Clarkson gives a full-
throated performance of a song by another artist. The list has ranged from Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” to Lizzo’s “Juice” to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.” The segment has become a reliable promotional engine for the show on social media and broadcast platforms. The “Kellyoke” segments have drawn more than 13 million views on the show’s YouTube channel to date, per NBC.
CBS Television Studios is hoping that Barrymore will give Clarkson some competition on the relatable-celebrity front with an entertainment- and lifestyle-focused show. Cannon is following a similar path to Clarkson by planting his flag in daytime after gaining TV stature in primetime as the host of Fox’s reality hit “The Masked Singer” and NBC’s summer staple “America’s Got Talent.”
“Nick Cannon” has been picked up for a fall 2020 launch by Fox Television Stations, which will put the show on Fox affiliates in nine of the top 10 markets. That will help drive promotion for the daytime show in connection with “Masked Singer,” much as NBCUniversal drives cross-promotion for Clarkson’s show with “The Voice” and other NBCU assets.
Cannon served as a guest host for Debmar-Mercury’s “Wendy Williams” earlier this year, which sealed the company’s conviction to take a gamble with him in daytime. Cannon’s show will air in tandem with “Wendy Williams” in many markets, giving it a compatible lead-in.
The national launch of a Monday-through-Friday syndicated talk show is at minimum a $30 million proposition. Debmar-Mercury co-president Mort Marcus says that Cannon was worth the risk, despite the high casualty rate in daytime.
“We would not be launching this unless we felt there was a really, really good chance it will be a moneymaker,” Marcus says. “Yes, it’s a tighter marketplace for syndication, but it’s healthier for the market when there are a bunch of new shows and people are trying new things.”