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A Star by Word of Mouth : Television: Sally Jessy Raphael works without the razzle and dazzle of her competitors, but she's been nominated again for an Emmy as best talk-show host.

May 17, 1990|RICK DU BROW | TIMES TELEVISION WRITER

Sally Jessy Raphael has learned to live with the question: Is she upset that talk-show competitors such as Oprah Winfrey are far better known?

"Oh, gosh, no. I don't feel bad," maintains Raphael. "I'm grateful to be where I am."

It would be only human, of course, if she really felt otherwise. Last year, in a TV Guide interview, her husband was quoted as saying that the Oprah phenomenon was discussed "ad nauseam." But Raphael simply and diplomatically said the other day, "Oprah is magic."

If Raphael, whose show is carried in Los Angeles by KCAL Channel 9, has a major strength, it is that she knows her place. Better yet, she knows who she is. She is an average-looking, hard-working, down-to-earth broadcast professional who has been through the mill--fired 18 times--but has not let it embitter her as she tackles her daily syndicated series with a matronly warmth.

The approach works. Last year, she won the Daytime Emmy Award for best talk-show host, beating out Oprah, among others. And last Thursday, both she and her show were nominated again for this year's Daytime Emmys, which will be televised on ABC from New York on June 28.

What's more, Raphael is out promoting her new book, "Sally," which she wrote with Pam Proctor. Typically, it focuses on what she calls the "funny, crazy" experiences of her career: "It tells the stories of a man and a woman and their kids going from town to town trying to find work.

"This is the story of thinking you've made it 20 times, and each time the show gets canceled or the station changes language and you're back at ground zero. And you're going, 'Why does it take so long?' It's also the story of telling people that if you stay around long enough, having nothing to do with talent. . . . Well, I think the talent is in staying."

The day after her latest Emmy nomination last week, Raphael sat calmly on a couch in her suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel amid hurried reminders that she had to leave soon to tape her guest shot on the Arsenio Hall show. She refused to be rushed.

No, she said of her image, she did not try to keep a low public profile compared to competitors Winfrey, Phil Donahue, Geraldo Rivera and, now, Joan Rivers: "It may be because there's nothing sensational about me. I mean, I'm a lady who's been married to the same man for 25 years. I have my children; I travel with them. The tabloids don't call. There's no dirt, there's nothing, just somebody working at their job.

"I think that in today's world, that says something. And I think the reason you last is that you're a comfortable, not objectionable, person to a lot of people. Now, there's two ways of making it. There's making it with a great big splash. But Hugh Downs is a slow guy who's always going to work. Sally Jessy Raphael is a slow person who's always going to work."

No one, of course, epitomizes the big-splash species more than Winfrey. And Raphael has sized up her competition: "In any business, there's always somebody who comes along who wins all the prizes. Oprah's the one who won all the prizes. There is no comparison in terms of fame or salary or acceptance or timing or anything. I don't feel that anybody, either Geraldo or Phil or I or any of the other shows, comes near to Oprah's phenomenal success.

"This lady did not get lucky. This lady is a good broadcaster. She's what America wants to see. I don't know what other people earn. I don't know what stock they have. But none of us could put up a studio (as Winfrey has in Chicago). It's like saying to some man who's working somewhere, and he thinks he's done well--and has--'Let's compare you with John D. Rockefeller.' "

As for Donahue, Raphael says: "That guy probably would have been pretty happy being an Irishman in politics. I know him, so I know that's true. He's been doing this 23 years. He's forgotten more than this lady is going to learn. Would he ever give this up and run for politics? I wouldn't be surprised."

KCAL broadcasts the "Sally Jessy Raphael" show twice daily--a rerun at 11 a.m. and new segments at 2 p.m. Low profile or not, she has become one of that special breed of national TV schmoozers whose first name alone is sufficient identification--Phil, Geraldo, Oprah and Sally--and whose styles and frequently flamboyant content provoke endless debate.

Raphael says that perhaps 70% of her programs come from viewer mail: "Please do a show on. . . ." And although her first-run broadcasts are presented at 2 p.m. on KCAL, she says her national exposure is vastly different: "My audience is largely 10 o'clock in the morning, predominantly female, surprisingly young--but they're home because they're mothers. They've had their baby and they're staying home with their child."

The mid-morning time slots nationally could also explain why Raphael's profile is lower than those of Oprah, Phil and Geraldo, who, in Los Angeles for example, are used as lead-ins to the local evening news, and thus become part and parcel of hard-hitting TV packages.

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